The unfairness of US criminal justice has been well-publicized for decades, but a recent book by the Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi suggests that the system has decayed to a state in which wealthy citizens – with access to good lawyers – are, for all practical purposes, exempt from entry into “the biggest [prison population] in the history of human civilization.” Depressingly, the prison population’s explosive growth – doubling since 1991 to over 2.2 million in 2012 – has coincided with a steep reduction in violent crime (more than 40 per cent). This paradox, coupled with the Justice Department’s abject non-prosecution of the white collar criminals who caused much of the 2008 financial crisis force Taibbi to conclude, in The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap that America’s “profound hatred of the weak and poor” and its “grovelling terror before the rich and successful” have led to the construction of “a bureaucracy to match those feelings.”
Nowhere has this bias been more noticeable than in minority populations in big cities. In 2011 New York City police searched more than 680,000 people under its stop-and-frisk programme, supposedly at random. Eighty-eight per cent of them just happened to be Black or Hispanic. The programme meant to uncover guns – which it did in less than 0.02 per cent of the time – but it also allowed the police to lay charges for unrelated offences, such as drug possession. Measures like these have allowed police forces throughout the country to focus a disproportionate amount of their attention on petty crime. The cumulative preference for such low-hanging fruit has effectively overturned many of the advances of America’s Civil Rights movement by re-segregating hundreds of thousands of black men.
Two years ago, Michelle Alexander, a former associate professor at Stanford Law School, published a damning analysis of the US justice system’s penchant for targeting minorities, in a book aptly-titled The New Jim Crow. Noting that “as a criminal, you have scarcely more rights than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow,” Alexander observed that “an extraordinary number percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today [and] subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents once were.” She concluded that “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
In addition to the appalling waste of money, and the perpetuation of racial bias, the criminalization of America’s “weak and poor” has had devastating personal consequences on thousands of families who have lost their children to the recent mass incarceration. A remarkable recent HBO documentary called ‘The University of Sing Sing’ chronicles the lives of some of the young men who make up the startling statistics that Taibbi and Alexander cite in their work. The documentary follows the progress of a group of inmates studying for a college degree in Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York, as part of the Hudson Link programme founded by five inmates in 1998. (The programme now has such high-profile supporters as Harry Belafonte, Warren Buffett and the rapper Ice T.)
HBO’s riveting footage shows how intently these supposedly irredeemable hardcore criminals are willing to work towards an education that was, in most cases, never offered to them in their earlier lives. Jo Ann Skousen, an English Professor in the programme says: “We teach the very same things that we teach at the normal campuses… the same teachers, the same syllabus.” Then she adds, smiling, “better students, that’s the biggest difference.” To those who question the merits of educating violent criminals for free, the programme’s staff ask a counter-question: When these offenders return to society – as almost all will – wouldn’t it be better if they were better educated than that they went to prison?
The prisoners in Sing Sing repeatedly ponder the meanings of a famous Langston Hughes poem about how racial equality became a “dream deferred” for many African Americans. The documentary illuminates Hughes’ poem by filming the prisoners’ discussion of it, and relating their readings of it to their own struggles to overcome a criminal past, and escape, via education, the racial and social exclusion into which they were born. The documentary closes with two statistics that give a small sense of what can be achieved with such imaginative and compassionate programmes: 43 per cent of US prison inmates return to prison within three years of their release; to date the comparable figure for graduates of the Hudson Link programme is “less than 2 per cent.”
Trillions of dollars were lost to white collar criminals on Wall Street just a few years ago and yet no high-ranking businessman has yet been sent to jail. In the meantime, the US justice system has filled its prisons with a million extra prisoners, most of whom are nonviolent and drawn from poor, minority communities. It is easy to see the folly of this system from afar. It is harder – but no less important – to ask ourselves in countries like Guyana, how we might learn from, and avoid, similar mistakes.