By Shannon Edly
On February 22, John Legend and Common took the stage at the Oscars to accept the award for Best Original Song for “Glory,” written for Selma, a powerful film depicting the struggles of the African-American community during the Civil Rights Movement. The acceptance speech the two men offered was equally as powerful as the beautiful performance of the song that preceded it.
“We know that right now, the struggle for freedom and justice is real,” John Legend said in the speech. “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more Black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850”.
Since that night, many have questioned the validity of Legend’s statements and sought to further understand what exactly the prison industrial complex in this country looks like. Are minorities unfairly targeted? Are our economies dependent on mass incarceration? The Fordham community provides answers to these questions and more.
First, it is important to define the term “prison industrial complex.” The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any other democracy in the world and incarcerates poor and minority individuals at a highly disproportionate rate. Minorities in the US—and particularly poor minorities—are more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted, and more harshly sentenced than white Americans under the same circumstances.
While incarceration at its roots is intended to be a rehabilitative process for offenders, there are many state and local economies that depend on incarceration for sustenance. Court fees, criminal fines, and probation violations generate a great deal of government income. The reliance on incarceration to generate government funds perpetuates the prison industrial complex, as the economic impact of dismantling it would be devastating.
Additionally, the mass privatization of prisons (where corporations, and not the government, runs prisons) creates a sizable economic incentive for private prison companies to boost incarceration rates and keep inmates in prison for longer sentences.
Still, of greater concern is the societal impact the complex has on the poor and minority community from which individuals are disproportionately incarcerated. Dr. Christina Greer, Fordham professor and author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream, has researched the implications of the complex on poor and minority communities. Greer points out that the perpetuation of the prison industrial complex in turn helps to perpetuate a cycle of dissolution of family structures, crime and poverty among many other consequences.
“When you zoom out from the problem, the prison industrial complex isn’t just about the men and women, in growing numbers, who are in prisons; you have to think about the communities they left behind,” Greer said. “Only having one parent makes it harder for you to have a middle class lifestyle. That one parent is raising kids with no father, so it creates all of these other structures that throw off a community’s balance.”
On February 7, Fordham University’s Department of African and African American Studies partnered with the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center to present “Liberation: The Legacy of Malcolm X. Policing, Mass Incarceration, and Justice in the 21st Century.” This event commemorated the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination by examining the current challenges that the African-American community faces in this country.
As the title suggests, the program highlighted issues concerning policing, mass incarceration, and the institutional barriers that perpetuate racial inequities in the US. The speakers on this day included two members of the Fordham community: Greer and Dr. Aimee Cox, professor of African and African-American Studies. The two panels of the day, “Malcolm X and the Impact of Mass Incarceration” and “Liberatory Action and Politics in the 21st Century” discussed the impact of these structural inequities on society and what can be done to correct them now and in the future.
“It was really intriguing to learn more about all of the different components of the complex” said Kathryn Ryan, FCLC ’16 and event attendee. “We know from research that the African-American community is imprisoned at a much greater rate than the white community, but a lot of people don’t realize the different things that cause that. The economic aspect of the complex alone challenges the thought that these people are solely incarcerated to punish them for crimes they’ve committed.”
Maya Van Peebles, FCLC ’15, recently conducted research on the Three Strikes Law, an example of one manifestation of the prison industrial complex in the US. Van Peebles discussed how the law, which presently exists in 28 states in similar forms, is more likely to cause harm by imprisoning people of color at a disproportionate rate than it is to actually discourage crime.
For the purposes of her research, Van Peebles focuses on the Three Strikes Law in place in California. This California law states that any criminal who receives a third felony conviction must serve a sentence of 25 years to life for the third crime. The stated goal of the law is to deter crime and prevent repeat offenses.
Criticisms of the law stem from the fact that the type of crime committed is not taken into account when a sentence is rendered. One person may receive a sentence of 25 years to life for three violent criminal felony charges while another person may receive the same sentence for three felony drug charges. The Three Strikes Law is an institutional barrier that leads to the aforementioned societal disruptions; it also contributes to the institutionalized racism in this country as it bolsters the stereotype of the Black community as dangerous and unlawful citizens.
While the answers to these questions may not be easily identified and the process of reversing the institutional racial inequities is not easy, the Fordham Community has shown its dedication to finding answers and to establishing a society where all people are seen equally in the eyes of the law.
Thanks to Dr. Christina Greer, Asst. Professor of Political Science FCLC, Maya Van Peebles, FCLC ’15, and Kathryn Ryan, FCLC ’16 for their contributions to this piece.