According to the Sentencing Project, more than 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. Of black males at least 20 years of age, 1 in every 8 is in prison or jail on any given day. Given the disproportionate number of black males incarcerated, it begs the question of why are so many black men the targets of the prison industrial complex. A corollary question is in order here: is there a motive behind keeping black men in prison?
One explanation to illustrate a motive as to why black men are disproportionately incarcerated is social control theory. Social Control theorists contend that when social constraints on antisocial behavior are weakened or absent, delinquent behavior emerges. An example of social constraints and how the state exerts power is the New York City Police Department practice of racial profiling documented by Bob Herbert of the New York Times.
He found that minorities were involved in 84 percent of the stops made in regards to police looking for weapons, drugs, and other illegal antisocial acts blacks are perceived to engage in. Moreover, racial profiling by NYC Police Department underscores the strength of the state and is an example of how state power serves as a deterrent to crime–NYC cites that crime has steadily gone down as a result of the state exerting its power. In addition, the reduction of crime is used to justify the criminalization of black males and the over incarceration of black males.
Another reason black males are cannibalized by the prison industrial complex is the need of the capitalist system to exploit labor—black labor has been the labor of choice for exploitation since the founding of the United States. Blackmon, in his book Slavery By Another Name, does a yeomen’s job explaining this forced labor black men were subjected to once they were freed. Today’s over-incarceration of black males is a continuation of capitalistic practices looking to exploit black labor.
Most of us are not aware that the prison system, as we know it, did not develop until black slaves were manumitted. Once they were freed, the South needed to recapture the free labor black male slaves provided. Thus, the invention of the current day prison system was born.
In the year 1820, there were 783,781 black males enslaved providing free prison labor and in the year 2000, there were 792,000 black males incarcerated providing free prison labor. Ironically, black males while incarcerated work for Fortune 500 companies such as Dell etc., but once released, the felony conviction precludes them from gaining meaningful employment. Now consider the year 1860, the zenith of slavery. In 1860, 1,981,395 black males where under labor bondage and juxtapose this to the year 2017 when 1,999,916 black males will be incarcerated. According to Graham Boyd (2001), author of the Drug War Is the New Jim Crow, by 2017, 1,999,916 black males will be incarcerated and they will be under labor bondage and will receive no compensation for their labor although it is contracted out to multinational corporations—see Figure 1 for computation of inmate population for 2017.
Taken together this research strongly suggests black males have been targeted for their labor. Moreover unbeknownst to many is that the custodians of black male labor–the prison system and for-profit prison corporations–make billions of dollars off their labor. Sadly, many states have not set a fair wage standard to govern prison wages and employment. Wages in prisons can range from $.50 cents an hour to $2.00 an hour. There is something patently wrong with this arrangement. This is a modern version of slavery and the basis for intergenerational cycles of penury.
Consider an aside here: Karl Marx characterizes the oppressed as the surplus population—in this discussion it connotes the black male population. The continuous exploitation of black male labor is state-sanctioned dehumanization. The prison system, the state apparatus is sine qua non in capturing black male labor for capitalist production. Sadly, forced slavery is sanctioned by Section 1 of the 13th amendment which reads as follows: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
The final motive in regards to keeping black men in prisons is a product of elite deviance, which uses state power to maintain the status quo instead of dealing with social problems which are byproducts of inequality. Instead of dealing with the poor and oppressed, they are incarcerated so we do not have to deal with the issues they create as a result of their social conditions. Black men are viewed as incorrigible reprobates unworthy of rehabilitation. Given the perceived threat of black men to the superstructure, fake campaigns such as the war on drugs and get tough on crime will continue the criminalization of an ever widening range of social problems for the sake of exploiting black male labor. Politicians are more interested in militarizing the police, building prisons as opposed to providing quality education for every child, creating jobs which provide livable wages, and developing an intelligent sound public health response to drug abuse.
Byron E. Price is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and the author of Merchandizing Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization?