While Blacks make up only nine percent of the Pennsylvania population, they make up 57 percent of the Pennsylvania prison population. Across the United States, the number of people in prison has risen to 2.3 million, the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized nation.
Despite the fact Black males make up less than 10 percent of the general population, they make up 35 percent of the total number of those incarcerated. According to Martha Conley, an attorney who has studied mass incarceration, these statistics are the result of the War on Drugs, a campaign aimed at reducing drug trafficking that began under President Richard Nixon in 1971, but actually goes back to the Teddy Roosevelt presidency in the early 1900s.
“Technically right now we have 2.3 million people who are slaves, actually more than that,” Conley said. “So we have to ask the question is this a war on drugs or a war on Black males. Seventy-five percent of all drug offenders in prison are Black or Latino, despite the fact that the majority of dealers and users are White.
The war on drugs began at a time when illegal drug use was on the decline.”
Mass incarceration was one of several issues covered at the Black and White Reunion’s 14th Annual Summit Against Racism. In her workshop, Conley outlined the history of the War on Drugs and its perhaps intentionally negative impact on the African-American community.
“There was a media frenzy around this crack epidemic. The media published pictures of crack babies and crack mommas and they were mostly Black. So this told the public this was a Black problem,” Conley said. “Our society made a decision to criminalize a certain activity and the African-American community has burn the brunt of it.”
Mass incarceration has been a lucrative business for companies like private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, Pennsylvania judges who received kickbacks from private juvenile detention centers, and law enforcement officials who receive incentives for drug arrests. However, the negative economic impact of a system that consumes more than $50 billion annually hurts ex-offenders and taxpayers the most.
“There are obviously economic consequences to this system. Those ex-offenders who are lucky enough to find employment, almost 100 percent of their wages can be garnished, so what’s the incentive,” Conley said. “Pennsylvania has more juveniles sentenced to life without parole than any other state. The cost of incarcerating those individuals falls on taxpayers.”
The event at East Liberty Presbyterian Church on Jan. 21 brought together activists from various movements around the city. In particular, it saw the union of African-American activists with those from Occupy Pittsburgh, a local branch of an international movement aimed at economic and social inequity.
“We can all differ about parts of the Occupy movement, but if the Occupy movement did nothing else, it has contributed to the exposure of the glaring disparities between the rich and the rest of America. If nothing else, it has brought a focus to that question of the haves and have-nots. The wealth disparity is at its largest gap in a quarter century. We’ve gone in the wrong direction,” said Tim Stevens, founder of the Black and White Reunion. “That’s why this recommitment we ask for every year, the week after the Martin Luther King holiday, is so important. We must be committed to creating equity and opportunity.”
Other workshop topics included “Being Accountable As Groups & Organizations,” “Land Tenure and Race,” “Building the Culture of Peace,” the movie “What Does Trouble Mean? Nate Smith’s Revolution,” “Building on Police Accountability Legislation & The Justice for Jordan Miles Campaign,” “The Image of Women,” and “Strategies for Building Occupy Pittsburgh’s Racial Justice Work.”