by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Today, my brain froze in its tracks. I found myself speechless, yet full of enough energy to power a nuclear warhead. The emotions bounced around my insides like disco lights, and I found myself more sensitive to my environment than I’d been since the day I came out of my mother’s womb.
Losing my grandmother this week, in conjunction with the extraordinary announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder, made for the kind of emotional cocktail that might possibly kill a man, like using uppers and downers while drinking a glass of Vodka. I don’t drink or use drugs, but I think this might be how it feels.
In case you haven’t noticed, Attorney General Eric Holder made one of the most impactful announcements in recent history on the effects of mass incarceration.
Holder expressed a commitment to making major adjustments in federal criminal policy, including getting rid of mandatory minimums for low-level, non-violent drug offenders. This will send fewer people to prison for long periods of time and also allow judges a greater degree of discretion to avoid the Draconian drug sentences that we’ve been seeing over the last 40 years.
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law enforcement reason,” Holder told the American Bar Association in San Francisco.
The United States incarcerates more citizens per capita than any country on earth. The federal prison population has grown by over 800 percent since 1980, with nearly half of those incarcerated being locked up for drug-related crimes. Prisons have become profitable, and corporations now earn billions of dollars each year by taking advantage of the loophole in the 13th Amendment which states that slavery is actually legal in the United States if you’ve been convicted of a crime.
As a professor of Finance, I must reiterate the dangers of building a capitalist model on the idea of incarceration. It leads us down a slippery slope where our society actually WANTS to put people in prison, since cheap labor allows the US to compete more effectively in the global economy. This is why it is no surprise that there are states across America that are taking money out of education and using those funds to build more prisons. A well-educated American doesn’t make for a very good slave.
Making matters worse, a disproportionate number of these inmates are African American males. These men are the ones who were meant to be the husbands, fathers and leaders in our communities. Instead, these men were drafted away to modern day concentration camps for decades at a time for offenses that were no worse than what we see in Syracuse University frat houses every single weekend. If they were to apply stop-and-frisk to any college campus, thousands of white kids would be going to prison.
These people aren’t being put in prison camps in order to make our society safer. Instead, our world is only made more dangerous after we take otherwise redeemable young people and turn them into killers, criminals, and in some cases, diseased men who become so marginalized that they live their lives with a death wish.
The HIV epidemic in the Black community can be traced right back to the prisons, where men and women are raped on a regular basis. The mental illness crisis in our community is driven by mass amounts of incarceration, causing too many of our children to be forced to deal with that highly-disturbed uncle, brother or father who drowns out his problems with a liquor bottle or a crack pipe. The extreme growth in single parent homes is tied to mass incarceration, since it’s difficult for women to find men to marry when so many of them are getting locked up.
So, this isn’t just a Black male problem or an inmate problem: It’s a problem for all of us.
I could go on and on, but the point is clear: The War on Drugs has destroyed our community in the same way that Hurricane Katrina took out the city of New Orleans. A generation later, an army of fatherless children roam the streets, some of whom become menaces to society before they leave the fifth grade. Even worse, the poison of prisons has marinated into our psyches, disguising itself as “black culture,” showing up in our music, our dress code, and the way we speak to each other.
Letters like the one written by a young woman to the judge who gave her father 14 life sentences help us to see firsthand how mass incarceration has destroyed families and made our country worse off than before. Just last year, my heart bled as I watched my older brother figure (an uncle slightly older than me) die after decades of mental illness and substance abuse that I believe came from being sent to prison at an early age. Most of us have seen the impact of prisons in our own lives, and we know that not every person in prison is beyond redemption.
I must publicly express my most sincere appreciation to Attorney General Eric Holder for listening when Russell Simmons and I wrote our letter to President Barack Obama. The meetings weren’t easy and I don’t enjoy speaking to politicians, but Russell has taught me a lot about the power of diplomacy and effective expression. I’d also like to thank the celebrities, activists, scholars and public figures who signed the letter, along with the thousands of citizen soldiers who supported our petition.
It would be presumptuous of me to think that our letter was the sole reason that the attorney general made his announcement, but our coalition, consisting of supporters as diverse as Jamie Foxx, Brad Pitt, Michelle Alexander and Jesse Jackson, was strong enough to get us a meeting with the Attorney General’s office. I was impressed, thrilled and inspired by the broad range of Americans who’ve come to understand the devastating impact of mass incarceration, and even people like Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne and the presidents of Morehouse and Spelman were willing to lend their names to the initiative. I didn’t care if I agreed or disagreed with the people on the list: Our only objective was to accept the support of anyone willing to use their fan base to help with this important cause.
We couldn’t have done this without you and I thank you from the bottom of my soul.
Eric Holder’s words represent a huge victory for all of us. If followed by appropriate action, this decision will make our communities better, safer and more fulfilled in the long-run. Unborn children will enter a world that is a little less hurtful than the one we experienced during the dark era of mass incarceration. We may even one day be able to raise our children in a world that doesn’t build a prison cell and casket for every Black child on the day they are born. Our children deserve to live, prosper, succeed and be happy.
It’s time to start the healing.