FOR THE WOMEN TAKING ON THE CRIMINAL SYSTEM, IT’S A MATTER OF JUSTICE
One unseasonably warm day in February, photographer Stefan Ruiz and I wander over to the Brooklyn Detention Complex, a towering monolith of a jail that I’ve walked by a thousand times and never really noticed before. Ruiz is there to shoot a photo of the window where defendants—or more likely, members of their families—go to hand over bail money. I’m tagging along. It’s only a minute before a young man—gray sweatpants, white undershirt—emerges through the main doors. He’s grinning and wants us to take his photo, to capture his first moments of freedom after eight months in lockup. It’s not clear what crime he did or didn’t commit; he makes clear that he has no intention of going back. A corrections officer hanging out on the front steps sidles up to us. “What are you doing?” she asks him. “You can’t loiter here.” He’s waiting for the bail window to open so he can collect a MetroCard. “What are you doing here?” she asks us. We’re just passing by. She nods. Okay then. He slips back inside the building. In that moment the obvious is made all the more obvious. Neither of us is currently incarcerated, but we stand on two sides of an invisible line: He’s black, in prison-issue sweats, and part of the system. I’m white, in vintage Levi’s, and not.
“The system of mass incarceration is based on the prison label, not prison time,” writes civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander in her seminal book The New Jim Crow. “Once swept into the system, one’s chances of ever being truly free are slim, often to the vanishing point.” In America, where we have less than 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, we talk a lot about “mass incarceration,” but rarely do we stop to define exactly what that means. Data assembled by the Sentencing Project spells it out: Currently 2.2 million people are in prison or jail in the U.S. (some statistics say 2.3 million), and approximately 7 million are under some sort of correctional control (including surveillance, probation, parole, et cetera). In the past 40 years, owing in no small part to the war on drugs—born under President Nixon, realized by President Reagan, made indelible by President Clinton’s harsh sentencing policies and federal grants to expand state and local law enforcement—incarceration has increased by roughly 500 percent. Per Alexander, drug offenses alone “account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000.” And arrests for marijuana possession—a drug that is now legal for recreational use in nine states—made up “nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests during the 1990s.”
Crucially, prisons and jails do not reflect demographics outside, where non-Hispanic white Americans still represent a majority (about 61 percent). “Blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for drug offenses and 2.5 times as likely to be arrested for drug possession,” says a 2016 Sentencing Project report on state prisons. “This is despite the evidence that whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rate.” (An NAACP fact sheet suggests that ratio jumps to six to one when you look at rates of imprisonment for drug charges—which could in part be explained by studies like this one, showing major racial disparities in the plea bargaining process, which accounts for more than 90 percent of convictions both at the federal and state levels.) One in 17 white men in this country is likely to end up behind bars. For Latino men it’s one in six. For black men it’s one in three. (Black women are more than six times as likely as white women to end up in prison—Latina women more than twice as likely—and women’s incarceration has been outstripping men’s at a rate of 50 percent since 1980.) Even for those who have finished paying their debt to society, as criminal justice reform advocate and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker likes to say, there are more than 40,000 collateral consequences, including decreased access to social services (food stamps, public housing) and educational and job opportunities, loss of ability to serve on juries and, in some cases, to participate in the democratic process (in Alabama, for example, nearly 30 percent of the black male population has permanently lost the right to vote).
Permit me a long quote from Alexander’s book: “When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color—people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits—and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt—these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families. They were chastised for succumbing to depression and anger, and blamed for landing back in prison. Historians will likely wonder how we could describe the new caste system as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to imagine a system better designed to create—rather than prevent—crime.”
To give some measure of how dangerously convincing Alexander’s argument is, her book was recently in the news because two New Jersey prisons attempted to ban inmates from reading it. The New Jim Crow has sold more than a million copies since it was published in 2010, but the theories Alexander laid out have since been made all the more accessible by Ava DuVernay’s 2016 Netflix documentary 13th—named for the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime. Both projects connect the dots between past eras of white supremacist oppression (slavery, Jim Crow) and our current age of mass incarceration: the product of a system of policing and detention that insists on its own fairness and color blindness, but actually functions as a means of marginalizing and controlling people of color. The story told by the statistics above is no coincidence. In the wake of the civil rights movement, Alexander argues, “proponents of racial hierarchy found they could install a new racial caste system without violating the law or the new limits of acceptable political discourse, by demanding ‘law and order’ rather than segregation forever.” In other words: If Jim Crow was the new slavery, mass incarceration has been the new Jim Crow. As activist and academic Angela Davis puts it in 13th: By the time Nixon took office, “crime began to stand in for race.”
Both Alexander’s book and DuVernay’s film came out during the Obama administration, when narratives of a post-racial America bumped up against truths about racist policing verified by camera phone technology and amplified by social media–savvy activists. President Obama made some reform inroads (he reduced the federal sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine—a blatantly racist policy set in the 1980s—from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1, and during his second term the federal prison population dipped for the first time since the Carter administration). And in recent years, criminal justice reform has been touted as that rare thing—appealing to politicians and funders on both sides of the aisle (even the Koch brothers are for it). But President Trump, a law-and-order candidate from a bygone era, has managed in his brief time in charge to muck up any positive trends (at least federally; at the state level, as Pew Charitable Trusts attests, there’s more reason to be hopeful). A Brennan Center for Justice report counts the ways: Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have fear-mongered about a crime wave that doesn’t exist; created a false connection between immigration and crime; instructed prosecutors to seek the most severe penalties for all offenses; resumed the war on marijuana (a drug that Sessions has compared to heroin); repealed an Obama-era directive reducing the use of private prisons; decreased federal oversight of local police departments; and expanded the practice of civil asset forfeiture. Most recently, the White House made news when the president announced that he wasn’t willing to get behind sentencing reform in a bill currently making its way through the Senate, urging Congress instead to focus on reentry reform.
What to make of this? I emailed the story to the formerly incarcerated activist Topeka K. Sam, one of eight women Vogueprofiled for this portfolio—organizers, artists, lawyers, philanthropists, architects—who are helping to lead the charge in the fight for criminal justice reform and decarceration. (Why women? “We’ve always been at the helm of social movements,” says Patrisse Khan-Cullors, cofounder of Black Lives Matter and another of our subjects.)
Since her 2015 release from federal prison, Sam has founded Ladies of Hope Ministries, a reentry program for women like herself; helped draft the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, congressional legislation that would require prisons to provide female inmates with tampons free of charge and disavow practices like shackling during pregnancy and labor; launched a SiriusXM radio show about women in the system; and through a Soros Justice fellowship, she is working to put together a Know Your Rights guide for people on probation and parole (a process that in her own experience was “arbitrary. They do what they want to do. It changes from probation officer to probation officer, from district to district, from system to system. It’s counterproductive”).
Her take on the news from the White House? “We need to do everything. Not one thing.”
See the original article for more about the women in this article.