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Michelle Alexander Calls for an End to Mass Incarceration

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PHOTO PROVIDED BY RANDALL MORTON
Michelle Alexander

When Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47 percent came to light, perhaps the most shocking part was made of two words rattled off in a list that ended with “you name it.” Romney said of this dismissible 47 percent of Americans that they, (erroneously) “believe they are entitled” to health care, housing, and “to food.”

To food.

Are we, as citizens of the United States, or even just as living humans, entitled to food?

I would think this question were easily answered, in theory if not in practice. But then, pre-Romney, I wouldn’t have thought it needed asking at all. Yes, people should be able to eat. Look at Death Row: we feed even those we think deserve to die up until the day we kill them. Surely if Charles Manson still gets his daily trays, we can agree that everyone is “entitled” to food.

So what about someone arrested for possessing marijuana?

Until last night, when Michelle Alexander, Stanford Law graduate and associate professor of law at Ohio State, addressed the Progressive Forum at the Wortham Center in Houston, I had no idea that most states, including Texas, prohibit anyone who has ever had a drug conviction from receiving food stamps.

In fact, the federal law that prohibits public benefits for drug felons was passed in 1992 by Democratic President Bill Clinton, as part of “welfare reform.” It contained an opt-out provision, but as of 2010, only 13 states and the District of Columbia had decided that, yes, even drug felons are entitled to food.

This is one of roughly a thousand head-spinning revelations in Alexander’s 2010 bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Reissued in paperback this year, The New Jim Crow has stayed on The New York Times Best Seller list for nine months and spurred a national conversation about whether, in the same America that elected a president of color, the criminal justice system is now doing the job that Jim Crow laws used to do: ensuring African Americans remain an “undercaste.”

Last night, Alexander exhorted a rapt audience of about 700 to “wake up” to the changes that 30 years of drug policy have wrought. Simply put: study upon study confirms that African Americans are no more likely to use or sell drugs than white Americans, but they are far, far more likely to go to prison for it, particularly if they are poor. Once a young person is transformed into a Felon, upon serving his time he’ll find virtually unscalable obstacles to full reintegration into society. This is because while it’s no longer acceptable to deny housing, employment, suffrage or public benefits simply on the basis of race, it is not only legal but, in the eyes of most, including a large part of the minority community, totally acceptable to deny these rights to a Felon.

In Texas, for example, a Felon (and I capitalize this to draw attention to the fact that this one characteristic becomes a whole identity subsuming the rest of the person’s history and worth) is not entitled to food stamps. Ever. According to Ana Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas has more 70,000 people exiting its prisons every year. Those citizens have an extremely difficult time obtaining housing, being hired for any kind of job, or even legally feeding themselves. In Texas, even if you have no criminal record, if you allow a Felon to stay at your apartment with you, you can be evicted for it. So even family members of a former prisoner put themselves at personal risk by taking in their own who may not otherwise be able to obtain housing.

Alexander pointed to Texas as the “birthplace of mass incarceration,” and observed that while “Right on Crime” trends are beginning to erode “Tough on Crime” mentalities, this is little cause for rejoicing. The decrease in Texas prison populations has been a response to the extreme expense of mass incarceration in an age of shrinking state and local budgets, not because of recognized injustice. Alexander says that as long as the rationale for deincarceration doesn’t acknowledge the racial and economic origins of the prison boom, nothing is fixed.

The New Jim Crow, like anything bold, has its critics. Some recoil from Alexander’s suggestion that President Reagan deliberately publicized the explosion of crack cocaine in the inner cities to bolster support for his already-declared war, which, she notes, began two years before the advent of crack and when drug use rates were falling. Others criticize her focus on the minority community, ignoring the impact the drug war has had on poor people of all races, and failing to acknowledge the minority community’s support for tough drug enforcement.

But last night, Alexander made a point of recognizing the cost of the civil rights movement to poor whites and the way racial inequity historically has been used to keep the lower classes from organizing together. She called for a nothing less than a “multi-racial, multi-ethnic human rights movement on behalf of all of us” that would end felonies for simple drug possession, and, more expansively, ensure that the caste system created by slavery, perpetuated by Jim Crow laws and then mass incarceration would not be replaced by a new system to do the same job. She urged communities to break their silence about their own and their loved ones’ criminal histories, to create an “underground railroad” to help Felons reintegrate, and to shift to a public health model for treating drug abuse and drug addiction.

In closing, Alexander pointed out how detention of undocumented immigrants was now supporting the prison industry and functioning as the boogeyman to retain poor whites’ support for conservative policy. “We have to connect the dots,” she said. “It’s our task, I firmly believe, to end this.”

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.