Blackness In and Of Itself Became Criminalized

DominiqueAn excerpt from Duke Divinity School’s interview with Dominique Gillard, the author of Rethinking Incarceration. This is his response to the question, “How did we get here? How did we get in this situation?”

I quote a criminologist in the book, Elliott Currie. She says, “Short of major wars, mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program of our time.”

That’s a powerful statement. But I think we got here a couple of ways.

Theologically, we’ve misunderstood God’s justice as just about divine wrath. And because God is holy, we think God cannot be connected in any way to unrighteousness.

Our system has theologically encoded some of that in zero tolerance policies, “three strikes, you’re out” policies and other punitive responses to crime — as opposed to restorative responses that are rooted in our atonement theology.

Politically and historically, there’s been a fundamental misunderstanding that mass incarceration started with the declaration of the war on drugs.

Historically, mass incarceration has its roots right after the Emancipation Proclamation and during Reconstruction, with what is known as the “Black Codes” — legislation that criminalized blackness with things like vagrancy laws.

Blackness in and of itself became criminalized, and that led to the convict leasing system. You had people who were incarcerated, working for people who owned them just months prior.

But in addition, I lay out in the book five pipelines that are funneling people into incarceration.

The first, which most people know, is the war on drugs. The second is the school-to-prison pipeline, which people are also familiar with.

The next two, people don’t realize how impactful they are as conduits into the penal system.

The first is the war on immigration, where immigration arrests increased 610 percent from 1990 to 2000.

Then there is the deinstitutionalization of mental health. Mental health professionals have said that prisons are the new asylums.

And finally, there is the privatization of prisons. People have heard of privatized prisons, but I don’t think we fully understand how they function and why they’re so problematic.

They literally financially incentivize incarceration. Private prisons are most often situated in sparsely populated rural communities that need jobs and economic revitalization. So when you bring a private prison, you bring jobs. The prison has a contract that dictates bed minimums, which range from 70 percent occupancy every night to 100 percent occupancy.

In Arizona, they have three private prisons that require 100 percent bed occupancy every night. If you have unoccupied cells within the facility, you’re in violation of the contract and the private prison company can sue the community. That has happened; I talk about one case in my book.

So if you don’t want to be in breach of contract, what do you do? You target the most vulnerable communities, poor communities of color, where people are undereducated and under-resourced.

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