avatar
Creating jobs and expanding opportunity


majority was relegated to the margins of the economy as sharecroppers,

tenant-farmers or victims of the South’s notorious crop lien system.

"Often

facing starvation and usually illiterate (it was against the law to teach blacks

to read under the infamous ‘black codes’);, blacks frequently found themselves at

odds with prevailing laws or the agents and enforcers of law," Fierce

writes. The last southern state to outlaw convict-leasing was North Carolina

(1933).

"My

forebears were poor immigrants to this country and they made it. Why can ‘t

blacks do the same," is a popular refrain. Perhaps, if schools put more

focus on the "history" part of "black history month," then

such silly and cynical sentiment would die-off naturally like a virus slain by a

healthy immune system.

Convict-leasing

has morphed into something else today – a multi-billion-dollar crime control

industry. And you don’t have to be Karl Menninger or C. Vann Woodward to suspect

something is fundamentally wrong with America’s crime and punishment system and

that black folks disproportionately find themselves entrails in the belly of the

beast.

A

federal law prohibiting domestic commerce in prison-manufactured goods unless

inmates are paid "prevailing wage," allows politicians to feign

concern for human rights with a straight face, railing about prison labor in

Communist China. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that American

"free-market" leaders do the same thing. The prison-labor law

"doesn’t apply to exports, (so) no California prison officials will end up

in cells alongside their ‘employees,’" observes Reese Erlich, an

independent reporter who teaches journalism at Cal State Hayward and has been

studying this stuff for years.

Erlich

makes another interesting observation: Chinese and U.S. prison officials make

the same arguments in defense of their prisn labor systems. "We want

prisoners to learn a working skill," Erlich quotes Mai Lin Hua, warden at

China’s maximum security Shanghai Jail.

Fred

Nichols, who heads up Oregon’s "Prison Blues" jean-making racket,

says, "We provide extra training for them. Here the inmates

volunteer." They "volunteer" in California too, in one of the

nation’s top prison industries – the California Prison Industry Authority, where

inmates are forced to work at sewing machines to make blue work shirts at $.45

cents an hour. If they refuse to work, they have their canteen privileges

suspended and they lose "good time" credit on their jail terms.

We’re

talking for-profit operations here. From 1980 to 1994, the number of federal and

state prisoners increased by 221 percent and the number of inmates employed in

prison industries jumped 358 percent, according to the Correctional Industries

Association. During that same period, prison industry sales shot up from $392

million to $1.31 billion, Erlich reports.

A

study is being released this week called "Poor Prescription: The Costs of

Imprisoning Drug Offenders," put together by the Justice Policy Institute.

The study found that the number of inmates in jail for drug offenses today

(458,131) nearly exceeds the entire 1980 prison population (474,368).

The

report’s major findings: From 1986 to 1996, the number of whites imprisoned for

drug offenses has doubled, while the number of blacks imprisoned for drug

offenses has increased five-fold. And that despite the fact that whites account

for over 70 percent of all illicit drug use in America.

There

is a statistically significant association between higher incarceration rates of

drug offenders and greater, not less, drug use in the states examined, the study

found. Also, nearly half of all drug offenders imprisoned in California last

year were locked up for simple possession of drugs.

Say

brother, if you can’t find a way into the "booming economy," there’s a

great jobs program in the prison industry.