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‘13th’ Offers Searing Exposé Of Mass Incarceration Of Black Men

“Not whips and chains — all subliminal; instead of nigger, they use the word criminal” — Common from “Letter to the Free”

In the end, she gives us grace. And by then, you really need it.

The end credits roll over pictures celebrating everyday joys of African-American life. A beaming girl rides a pony. Boys flex. Fathers cuddle daughters.

The anger and pain that have sat heavily in your chest for over 90 minutes begin to lift ever so slightly at these reminders of black life still stubbornly managing to be lived even in the midst of state-sponsored oppression. Otherwise called, without irony, the U.S. justice system.

In “13th,” the troubling new documentary from director Ava DuVernay now streaming on Netflix, the American prison industrial complex is laid bare as a machine designed for the suppression of an inconvenient populace. Meaning black men — the nation’s boogeymen for two centuries and counting. Like “The New Jim Crow,” the game-changing 2012 book by Michelle Alexander, “13th” doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know if you’ve been paying attention. Its triumph is to fit the pieces together, to make visible the pattern that was there all along.

Namely, that much of what we call justice is a 150-year effort to win back what was lost at Appomattox. Yet somehow, we never quite see.

Six point five percent of the country accounts for over 40 percent of its prisoners. The liberal looks at this and says, isn’t it a shame what poverty does to them? The conservative looks at it and says, isn’t it a shame they embrace thug culture? The overt racist looks at it and says, isn’t it a shame they’re naturally criminal?

Hardly anyone looks at it and says, the system is working as designed. Hardly anyone says, this is not about criminality, but control.

DuVernay says it forcefully, explicitly and convincingly. In “13th” — the title comes from the constitutional amendment that ended slavery — the director of “Selma” draws a line from Appomattox through convict leasing, through lynch law, through the Southern strategy, through mass incarceration, through the commodification of black bodies and black misery by private prison entrepreneurs. All the way up to now.

Cue Donald Trump. On screen, a black man is being spat upon at one of his rallies. A black woman is being shoved. A black man is being sucker punched. And Trump is loving it.

“Knock the crap out of ’em would you? Get ’em out of here. In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily. Like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you.”

As he speaks, the images change. It’s 1965 and Rev. C.T. Vivian is being knocked down the courthouse steps. It’s 1960 and protesters are being hauled off lunch counter stools. It’s 1957 and reporter L. Alex Wilson is being kicked and pummeled down the streets by the good people of Little Rock.

All as Trump is reminiscing about the good old days. And a chill skitters your spine.

We like to think we have distance from the past, don’t we? We profess to be mystified by it. How could people have done such things? If I had lived at that time, a man will assure you, I’d have never tolerated it. But, as attorney and author Bryan Stevenson reminds DuVernay’s camera, “the truth is, we are living at this time — and we are tolerating it.”

It is an unanswerable truth, a truth that leaves conscience maimed. The credits roll just then.

And yes, you are thankful for that small bit of grace.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail atlpitts@miamiherald.com.

Photo: via Wikimedia commons

Tom Cotton Thinks Iraq And Afghanistan Are Good Models For Law Enforcement

Despite the United States housing 25 percent of the world’s prison population, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton claimed Thursday that America had an “under-incarceration problem,” comparing our failure to jail more of its citizens to similar post-occupation failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I saw this in Baghdad. We’ve seen it again in Afghanistan,” said Cotton, an Army veteran of both wars, of the prospect of releasing convicted felons from prison early. “Security has to come first, whether you’re in a war zone or whether you’re in the United States of America.”

Given Cotton’s legislative history, the comments should come as no surprise. But how could a sitting senator reach such an outlandish conclusion?

“Take a look at the facts. First, the claim that too many criminals are being jailed, that there is over-incarceration, ignores an unfortunate fact: for the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and jailed,” Cotton said in his speech at The Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, according to his prepared remarks. “Law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19 percent of property crimes and 47 percent of violent crimes. If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.”

Cotton has been a consistent opponent of any sort of criminal justice reform. In January, he led a clique of Republican senators fighting against a bipartisan effort to reform mandatory minimum sentencing, citing unvalidated claims that releasing thousands of felons would result in a spike in crime.

“It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons,” said Cotton in an interview with Politico. “I think it’s no surprise that Republicans are divided on this question … [but] I don’t think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do.”

However, two new studies by the American Society of Criminology and a trio of criminology professors point to a different result. The studies, observing the consequences of California’s mass release of 27,500 felons since 2011, concluded that there has been no noticeable increase in violent crime rates across the state.

Meanwhile, California’s prison population has been reduced by 17 percent and has slowly reversed a troubling trend — some prisons were formerly up to 300 percent over capacity. The reduced prison population has saved the state nearly $500 million. On the national level, the “epidemic of incarceration costs us taxpayers $63.4 billion a year,” according to CBS News.

Asides from aspiring to “an act of mass forgiveness unprecedented in U.S. history,” the state was ordered to release prisoners from its overcrowded prisons by the United States Supreme Court, who ruled that the overcrowding of the state’s prisons constituted cruel and usual forms of punishment. California voters also voted in favor of Proposition 47, which reclassified a number of drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies, further reducing the burden on the state’s prison system.

The statistics used in Cotton’s speech were from a 2010 FBI report on crime, according to his office. The latest edition of complete numbers, from 2014, showed that the percentage of unpunished crimes has remained roughly consistent. Violent crimes rose by 0.5 percent between 2010 and 2014 while property crimes, the other metric Cotton used in his speech, dropped by 6.8 percent over the same period.

A study of crime rates between 1990 and 2013 by the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute associated with New York University, found that violent crime had dropped by over 50 percent and property crime by 43 percent. At the same time, 1.1 million Americans were jailed, nearly doubling the prison population.

Since 2000, the effect on the crime rate of increasing incarceration, in other words, adding individuals to the prison population, has been essentially zero. Increased incarceration accounted for approximately 6 percent of the reduction in property crime in the 1990s (this could vary statistically from 0 to 12 percent), and accounted for less than 1 percent of the decline in property crime this century,” said the report.

But Cotton remains ideologically committed to the preservation of the prison-industrial complex. Rather than acknowledge the changing conversation around mass incarceration, he cited his experiences in two war zones as proof that he knew better about how to handle Americans locked up for crimes punished less heavily in other countries.

Of course, the United States is not under military occupation (as much as some Republican voters would like to imagine it were), and the criminal justice system we need is entirely different from the experience of occupying countries opposed to being invaded. Using the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq as a framework for criminal justice policy here should worry the American public.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Prison-Industrial Complex Morphs Into Treatment-Industrial Complex

Nancy Reagan’s recent death was a reminder of the shallow moralizing of the Just Say No anti-drug campaign she once championed.

Thankfully, attitudes have changed. We’re more attuned to the fact that untreated mental health issues are often a precursor to drug use. Nancy’s slogan to fight peer pressure won’t help much there.

Most people realize that the War on Drugs, begun under Nixon, has failed.

And there’s growing public awareness that we’ve let our jails and prisons become warehouses for people who need treatment — and who needed it long before they took a criminal turn.

Mandatory sentencing guidelines have been changed, and the days of presidential administrations following the whims of a drug czar are over.

Incarceration rates are dropping. To most, this is good news. But it’s not if your business model revolves around keeping people locked up.

The for-profit prison industry has kept one step ahead of the trend. They got wise quick, sensing the winds shifting away from mass incarceration and toward the need to address mental health issues within the nation’s prisons and jails.

For those familiar with the term “prison-industrial complex,” meet its offspring — the “treatment-industrial complex.”

A report released in February by Grassroots Leadership, a civil and human rights organization, rings some warning bells. The report, “Incorrect Care: A Prison Profiteer Turns Care into Confinement,” is part of a series of reports that has focused on reducing the nation’s dysfunctional criminal justice system.

This latest installment takes an in-depth look at the privatization efforts in Texas, Florida and South Carolina. In particular, it goes after the shifting business models of for-profit prison operators Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, as well as spinoff rehabilitation companies like Correct Care Solutions.

The charge is that just as prisons are often not about rehabilitation, these new for-profit treatment places are not about helping people regain their mental stability and, therefore, their release. The report also challenges the quality of care being offered, citing cases of violence and patient deaths.

One startling figure from the report: 50 percent of people in correctional facilities suffer from mental health and substance abuse disorders. This compares to estimated rates of only 1 percent to 3 percent within the U.S. population. Prisoners represent a huge market for mental health care. If the prison operator also has a side business in mental health care, a conflict of interest presents itself.

Under normal circumstances, a person can get out of prison after serving his sentence. In fact, 90 percent of people who are sentenced do just that. But inmates can be placed by a judge into a for-profit mental health program in a prison — say, under civil commitment laws now on the books in about 20 states — and be detained there past the end of the sentence. The operator has a clear incentive to keep a person there indefinitely, to increase the return on its investment.

The Grassroots Leadership report points out that these private operators offer cost savings to a state when the facility is full: Thus the cost per head goes down. Assigning inmates to these facilities can be very appealing to lawmakers trying to balance tight budgets. Potentially, it becomes even more alluring when a lobbyist with the industry is making a hefty donation to a re-election campaign.

A basic set of circumstances and decisions has set the stage in many states. Legislatures have cut public mental health budgets, resulting in understaffing and poor conditions in state-run facilities. Community-based mental health programs are also being shorted. That leads to more untreated people who act out and then find themselves in a criminal justice system.

By virtue of their mental state, many of these people are not in a position to self-advocate for better care. Locked up, they are easily forgotten. One question must continuously be asked by legislators, advocates and the taxpayers whose dollars are being spent: In a for-profit model — in which more inmates equals more revenue — what possible incentive does a rehabilitation company have to help people regain stability and rejoin society? If such an incentive doesn’t exist and outweigh the profit motive, it’s hard to see how private-sector rehab programs won’t make matters worse.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.)

(c) 2016, THE KANSAS CITY STAR. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to reporters during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside Oklahoma City in this July 16, 2015 file photo.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files