By Asha Sydney
A UWP Student Essay
Working to Abolish Prisons: The Link Between Poverty, Imprisonment, and Race
The United States was founded on many systems coupled with ideals that have allowed for the advancement of certain groups at the disadvantage of others. Speaking more specifically, the current prison system has allowed for the targeting of people of color, especially those with low-income backgrounds. The truth of the matter is that we cannot talk about one issue in this country without discussing a slew of others, because they are all linked. These issues are seen in our current education system and our class structure, which has a ripple effect on imprisonment rates. In order to solve the issues at hand, they have to be broken down from the inside out, by starting at the root of the problem. Why is it a crime to be poor?
As many of us know, and as many of us try to ignore, the United States has never been a land of the free for many groups of people, and while it may seem that we have made immense progress as a country, the same systems are still at work, they are just presented to us in different ways to convince people that issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., have been eradicated. For example, many would say that the current prison system in the U.S. is a form of modern-day slavery, and it is used as a way to target Black and brown people.
The Netflix documentary, 13th, released in 2016 and directed by Ava Duvernay, begins with a clip from a speech made by Barack Obama where he says, “The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners.” The film goes on to discuss and explain in depth the workings of mass incarceration and how it is a long-standing systemic issue. This film then goes on to show Kevin Gannon, a professor of history at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, who then explains how the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution “made it unconstitutional for someone to be held as a slave” with this being said, he then goes on to state “there are exceptions, including criminals.” Khalil G. Muhammad, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and the Radcliffe Institute, calls this “a clause, a loophole.”
The American writer and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander is also featured in the documentary 13th. In the film, she says, “After the Civil War, African Americans were arrested en masse. It was our nation’s first prison boom….They were [being Black people] arrested for extremely minor crimes, like loitering or vagrancy.” Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, who is featured in this film as well, after Alexander’s statements says, “And they had to provide labor to rebuild the economy of the south after the Civil War.” It is clear that the targeting of impoverished people has a foundation that has been built over centuries. The targeting of freed slaves after their emancipation is a clear example, as slaves would not immediately have somewhere to work in order to provide for themselves, making them poor both within slavehood and outside of it.
In addition to this, aclu.org, (the American Civil Liberties Union) states, “Blacks are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate ten times greater than that of whites, despite the fact that blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rates.” We are speaking about both a race and class issue here. In order to dismantle this system at work, and to try and abolish prisons in general, we have to go about things a different way, which also includes taking a look at the budgets for police forces as well. In a video posted in 2020, on the YouTube channel, NowThis News, a video titled “Syracuse Resident Challenges Mayor on City’s Police Budget,” shows a clip of the activist and former director of the Central New York NYCLU chapter, Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, questioning his city’s police budget at a town hall meeting. He asks the mayor,
“What percent of police live in the city?”
“About 5% or so.” the mayor responds.
“5%? So, 95% don’t live in the city? So when you say that the vast majority of the [budget] percentage goes towards salaries, etc., fringe benefits, that means that they take their money on [Route] 81, go to outside the city, pay taxes in those communities that have some of the best schools, while we have an underfunded school district.” Abdul-Qadir states.
“$60 million up.” says a member of the audience.
“So, I just want to put into context, what we’re talking about. Because it’s really easy to say, Mayor–and with all due respect, I like you, but that was a very politician answer.”
“I’m sorry, what specifically?” asks the mayor.
“That ‘we will consider, and we will look.’ What we’re saying is we’re not interested in considering and looking….Commit to a $20 million cut. Because, as the mayor of Syracuse, when you don’t have a tax base, you’re sending money out of Syracuse. And not just for 30 years, but for the rest of their life. Because their pensions, their health insurance, their families. So, we are funding for other people’s communities to have the promise of the American Dream while we are denying it in our community.”
Abdul-Qadir then goes on to continue to advocate for his community, and one of the final statements from this video truly stands out, in which he says, “…what we’re saying is, you can’t play around with, ‘Maybe we will–’ No. Y’all gotta go. Because you don’t provide a service that is beneficial to the community, that is meaningful to the community. The services that you supply criminalize our community, impoverish our community, and reallocate resources to suburbs. We are actually funding the suburbs, both in our police departments and in our schools…we’re also funding what race of people on the police force? The percentage of race of teachers as well. Superintendent. Board president. So, we want to put it in context. Because this is not just a class issue, it’s a race issue. We’re telling black and brown people, and poor people: You don’t matter.”
Many wish to start movements to reduce or eliminate prisons. In order to do this, groups advocate for systems of rehabilitation that do not focus on punishment, and systems that do not feed the ‘Prison Industrial Complex.’ Recreating the same idea with a different name will do nothing but repeat the same issue at hand. In order to attack the issue at hand, we have to take a look at the issues leading up to it. To be more specific, Angela Davis, in “Are Prisons Obsolete? Abolition Alternatives,” writes that we need the “demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education on all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance” People should start at the root of the issue rather than trying to tear it down all at once.
When it comes to things such as reparations and reconciliations, speaking about Black people in the U.S. specifically, Black people as a whole have never quite recovered from slavery and the institutional bias that it created. While Black Americans have been able to make great strides and carry out great things in this country, there are things that they should have never been having to fight for in the first place. The creation and popularization of slavery in America only trickled into other systems and set up clear power dynamics that are still exercised today. Even as we work to tear apart systems in this country, race is not going to go away, at least not anytime soon, because it is so deep-rooted, and with race, comes racism and the systems that work to perpetuate it. Many of us take part in these systems whether we want to or not. There is no way to exist in America without being a part of a system that puts yourself or someone else at a disadvantage. The importance of black excellence does not take away from how we see ourselves being killed and harassed by extreme police force throughout news channels and social media. Existing as a Black person with social media can be a taxing experience; George Floyd, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice are just of the many names and people who did not have to die. While these people did not even live to make it to prison, they are a representation of how dangerous and unjust the “justice” system is in this country, and how so much work has to be done to reform it.
Reform can happen from multiple angles. The school-to-prison pipeline is far too real, and part of that has to do with the fact that if no one is pushing children to learn more about what interests them, then they may not go as far as they can or want to, and the blame should not be placed on them. How does one know what to do, when no one has shown them or surrounded them with the possibility to seek out help? Davis also writes, “unless the current structures of violence from school in impoverished communities of color, including the presence of armed security guards and police, and unless school becomes a place that encourages the joy of learning, these schools will remain major conduits to prisons.” When there is no one encouraging you to do better or to strive for more, especially when the odds are already stacked against you, there are very few options and specific realities in the future for you. Especially with education, in poorer or more urban areas, students need teachers that look like them and understand their experiences.
For children of color who grow up in homes and go to schools in areas where they are less fortunate and always fighting to survive, prison is a very real reality for them and their peers. Fighting for survival also has a lot to do with the current healthcare system as mentioned before, Davis explains that there are currently more people in prison with mental and emotional illnesses than there are in mental institutions, and because many people do not have access to what they need, they end up doing things that could have been prevented. Davis is quoting Katherine Stapp, “Prisons Double as Mental Wards,” published in 2002, from www.agrnews.org, where it says, “Stapp’s article describes a study by Seena Fazel of Oxford University and John Danesh of Cambridge University published in the British medical journal The Lancet. According to Stapp, the researchers concluded, ‘One in seven inmates suffers from a mental illness that could be a risk factor for suicide, says the study. This is more than one million people in Western countries. The study’s authors . . . surveyed data on the mental health of 23,000 prisoners in 12 Western countries over a period of three decades. They found that prisoners ‘were several times more likely to have psychosis and major depression, and about ten times more likely to have an anti-social personality disorder, than the general population” In addition to this, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, published a report titled “Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016,” published in 2021, reported, “An estimated 27% of state and 14% of federal prisoners reported being told they had a major depressive disorder, the most common mental disorder reported.”
In terms of abolishing prisons, we have to do the work and figure out how to make situations fair for people rather than equal. By giving poor people of color access to what they should already have, in order to somewhat bridge a gap. Those stuck in poverty are going to need more resources and more attention than those who are not in poverty, and while some may view this as special treatment until the playing field is somewhat level, some people are always going to need more help. There should also be an emphasis placed on the community as well, people thrive in spaces in which they feel that they are supported, instead of pushing people out of the neighborhoods they are from due to instances such as gentrification, the work should be done to keep them safe and stable in the homes they currently have.
The solution also lies in the fact that we as a society blame poor people for the situations that they are in when oftentimes, they were never given any opportunity to get themselves out of poverty. The minimum wage has never been a wage that one can survive on, and if they are surviving, they are barely doing it, or they are working more than one job to do so. A simple Google search will show you that the highest minimum wage in the United States is $16.50 an hour in Washington D.C., while the lowest is $5.15 in states such as Georgia and Wyoming for employers exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, for these same states with employers that are subject to this act, the minimum is only $7.25. Wages like this are causing people to most likely be living paycheck to paycheck with no room to save because the money they make has to be used to pay for necessities.
In “Do You Think the Poor Are Lazy,” the author Anat Shenker-Osorio writes, “Instead of a gap between rich and poor,’ we’re far better calling it a ‘barrier.’ A barrier…a big imposing wall behind which a few can hoard the goodies, while those on the other side are left wanting.” This barrier is successful, and it only continues to grow stronger as the “wealth gap,” grows.”
We as a society have to work at dismantling the systems that have put people in a position in which they cannot work their way out of poverty. The author lists things such as access to universal preschool, eradicating the easy access to cheap, accessible junk food as well as food deserts, and improving education by getting rid of untrained teachers and overcrowded classrooms in order to allow for better lives in general and more opportunities. While many people at the top assume that poor people are lazy, the truth is that the arduous work they are doing does not get rewarded with the same amount of money, options, and opportunities. For example, higher education is exclusive to those who can afford it, or to the select few who get great scholarships, but this does not happen to everyone, and when people do not have the degrees necessary to get better-paying jobs, they are left to work at minimum wage jobs, and in some cases, more than one at a time. Those working minimum wage jobs are not experiencing the same benefits from their paycheck, as opposed to those who are able to obtain and maintain salary jobs. The “barrier” being discussed is real and significant, and it only seems to grow over time.
Poverty and incarceration, like all systemic issues in this country, are linked. People of color from low-income areas tend to live in places that are overpoliced. In addition to living in places that are overpoliced, as it was mentioned before, many people are fighting to survive, causing them to make drastic decisions that put them in tough positions. We as a society know where the issues are and how we can start to fix them, but if we were to start fixing these issues, it would cause people to feel that their lives are under attack. People at the top do not want to feel like they are losing what they have managed to keep for so long. In order to start fixing these issues, money from those at the top may have to be redistributed to better serve those who live in worse states than them, and the mere thought of having less money scares them. The money could be redistributed by possibly taxing those who make more, a larger tax, or having community outreach programs that work to fundraise for those in poverty.
Real change has to be a collective effort. For too long, it has just been oppressed people working and fighting for what they should already have. When one’s existence itself is exhausting, it can be a lot to try and fight for bare necessities as well. This is why those at the top with more wealth need to work on disrupting what we have normalized in society. When things such as poverty are eradicated or even reduced, we are certain to see a reduction in the number of people going to prison. The truth is that when one change happens, it has the ability to create a ripple effect. Recidivism rates in America show that prison may not be doing what it claims it is good for.
On sog.unc.edu, the website for the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s school of government, a post titled, “A Look at the 2022 Sentencing Commission Recidivism Report,” published in 2022, it states, “The North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission released its biennial Correctional Program Evaluation, better known as the Recidivism Report. It is prepared in conjunction with the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, as required by G.S. 164-47.” Within this evaluation, it states, “Overall recidivism rates. Of the 47,000 people covered by the report, 41 percent were arrested within two years. Probationers (37 percent) were less likely to be re-arrested than prisoners (49 percent). The recidivist incarceration rate for inmates released from prison was 36 percent. Overall rates were down from previous years, with some of that reduction perhaps attributable to the slow-down in court operations as a result of COVID-19.” One could argue that despite the recidivist incarceration rate for inmates released from prison going down, 36 percent is still quite a large number of people, especially if those who conducted the study believe that part of the slowing down may only be because of COVID-19. 36 percent of 47,000 people, is 16,920 inmates who reoffended after their release, and despite whether or not these people came from poorer backgrounds (even though it is more likely than not that some did), this is still a huge number of people, and clearly, prison did not “work” the first time for them. If this is only the data from one state, one can imagine how many other people are reoffending throughout the U.S., which only reinforces the point that prisons are not working; they are not the answer. How can we expect a system that was never created with the intent to help those at the bottom, do that very thing? These systems that exist are racist and classist because they force people to jump through hoops for the bare minimum. Facing prison time should not be a thought that even crosses a young child’s mind, or anyone’s mind truly, for the mere fact that they were dealt a bad hand in a game that was rigged from the beginning.
ACLU. “Mass Incarceration.” Aclu.org, https://www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/mass-incarceration.
Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016.” Njs.ojp.gov, June 2021, https://bjs.ojp.gov/library/publications/indicators-mental-health-problems-reported-prisoners-survey-prison-inmates.
Davis, Angela, “Are Prisons Obsolete? Abolitionist Alternatives” (pg. 736-741) Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study 10th Edition edited by Paula S. Rothenberg, St. Martin’s Press 2016.
DuVernay, Ava, director. 13th, 8 Oct. 2016, Netflix.com.
“13th.” Imdb.com, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5895028/.
Markham, James M. “A Look at the 2022 Sentencing Commission Recidivism Report.” Sog.unc.edu, 25 Aug. 2022, https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/a-look-at-the-2022-sentencing-commission-recidivism-report/.
News, NowThis, director. Syracuse Resident Challenges Mayor on City’s Police Budget | NowThis. Youtube.com, 12 July 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7qZLb3jW4I. Accessed 15 Jan. 2023
“Demanding Racial Justice for All New Yorkers an Interview with Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, Senior Strategist for Racial Justice at the NYCLU.” Nyclu.org, https://annualreport.nyclu.org/interview-yusuf-abdul-qadir/.
Shenker-Osorio, Anat “Do You Think Poor People Are Lazy” (pg. 434-436).
Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study 10th Edition edited by Paula S. Rothenberg, St. Martin’s Press 2016.