Thinking about prisoners and institutionalized bigotry

It is big news in California today that a federal district court has ordered California to reduce its prison population “by nearly 43,000 inmates over the next two years.” So I’ve spent the day looking at prison statistics.

To begin with, California’s problem is a national problem. While according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers, California ranks only 18th of all the states in the union (Louisiana is first) in the proportion of its population it locks away, according to the King’s College of London International Centre for Prison Statistics, the U.S. as a country, both in terms of the total number of inmates and as a proportion of population, locks up more than any other country. The U.S. incarcerates more people than countries vastly larger in population. Ranked by proportion of population, the U.S. locks up more than such bastions of freedom as Russia, ranked 3rd with 628 prisoners per 100,000 population; Cuba, ranked 5th, with an estimated 531 per 100,000; Iran, ranked 58th with 222; Libya, ranked 59th with 209; Saudi Arabia, ranked 69th with 178; Zimbabwe, ranked 100th with 136; China, ranked 115th with 119; Vietnam, 125th with 107; Egypt, 147th with 85; and Syria, 183rd with 58. You might think the U.S. government and its subsidiaries might be the greatest threat to your freedom.

Of course, that depends on who you are. If you’re reading my blog, you’ve probably heard that Black men make up a disproportionately large share of U.S. prison populations. For every 100,000 black males in the U.S. population, 4,777 of them are in prison. They are over six times as likely as their white brothers to be in prison, nearly three times as likely as their Hispanic brothers, and four times as likely as their “other” brothers. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recognizes only three races: white, Black, and Hispanics. Individuals are either Hispanic or they are not. To combine with Census Bureau statistics, I added numbers for non-Hispanic “American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Asians, “Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders,” and “Two or more races.” In truth, there are probably no purebred humans anywhere on the planet. But Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department, who arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for “disorderly conduct,” should take note: This is a system of criminal injustice.

Black men are over six times more likely to be in prison than their white brothers, nearly three times as likely as their Hispanic brothers, four times as likely as their “other” brothers, 51 times as likely as their white sisters, nearly 14 times as likely as their Black sisters, over 32 times as likely as their Hispanic sisters, and–get this–936 times as likely as their “other” sisters. The numbers for Hispanic men and “other” men aren’t quite so outrageous, but even an “other” man is over 231 times more likely to be behind bars as is “other” sister. “Other” women are, by far, the least likely to be found in prison. Given that white males make up a majority of judges, prosecutors, and police, I can’t help but think of common white male fantasies involving “exotic,” “mysterious” Asian women.

Men in general are over ten times more likely to be in prison than their sisters. White men are nearly eight times as likely to be in prison as their white sisters, twice as likely as their black sisters, five times as likely as their Hispanic sisters, and over 142 times as likely as their “other” sisters. I’m supposed to believe these are cultural differences but, believe it or not, some of these people have lived in this country for a long time. By the time you get to the third generation, people generally do not speak the language of their ancestors; they are “Americanized.”

According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, Black men make up 29 percent of the state’s prison population but on six percent of the state’s adult population. It’s better in California if you are white or “other.” Whites make up only 27 percent of the prison population even though they make up 48 percent of the adult population and “others” make up only six percent of the prison population even though they make up 15 percent of the adult population.

If we believe that all these people have been righteously convicted, then we accept a racist proposition that Black men are inherently more criminal than anyone else. And by the same logic, we accept that U.S. residents are more criminal than those of any other country. If we do not accept this line of reasoning, then California’s criminal injustice system needs only to do some introspection to see a solution to its prison overpopulation problem. But I’m guessing that won’t happen.

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