Monday, February 9, 2015

Prison Pop Quiz: We have a problem, Alabama

Pop quiz: Which country incarcerates more of its citizens than anywhere else in the world?

You're probably thinking China? North Korea? Iran? Russia?

Nope.  Here's a hint: It's the land of the free, ironically enough. The United States of America.

We have more American citizens sitting in prisons across the country right now than anywhere else in the world.  And those citizens in jail are disproportionately African American. 

I'm bringing this up again today because we're celebrating Black History month and the 50 year anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement.  We're embracing our progress: our past and our future, but we still have a long road ahead for our communities.

You see, the prison problem is inextricably linked to so many other issues our state and our nation face: unequal access to educational opportunity, skewed wealth distribution and systemic poverty, mandatory-minimum sentences, three-strikes laws, and the list could go on.

The prison problem in America is exactly as Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative said, "Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes."

Because of this, it has become a generational, self-fulfilling cycle so that now, one of every three Black men between the ages of 18 and 30 is in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole.

And studies have shown that this isn't always linked to a higher rate of crime among these demographics.  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports drug usage is nearly equal among white and Black individuals.

And when it comes to prosecuting and sentencing, you can bet that Alabama leads the pack on issuing the death sentence. Even moreso if you're a Black defendent--then you can bet that your odds are higher that you'll receive the death penalty. In our state's history, 83% of the 757 people that have been executed by the state were Black.

EJI's Stevenson shared an anecdote from a conference in Germany, in which one of the German scholars stood up and said, "We don't have the death penalty in Germany. We can never have the death penalty in Germany. There's no way, with our history, that we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings."

Stevenson added, "What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation-state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn't bear it."

But with all of our history here in America, we are executing people who are disproportionately Black and there is a shocking silence around this issue.

It's easy for some people to sit back and think that this doesn't concern you or your family. It's easy to push it back to the back of our minds and think of it as a problem that other people face. But for others across the state, this is a very real problem that needs to change.

That change will be long and slow if only those affected are the ones trying to end this injustice.  With 34% of the Black male population permanently disenfranchised from voting, change has to come from a state joining together to rise above and push forward.

Because this isn't just a Black problem. This isn't just a poor people's problem. This is our problem, Alabama. 

We have a prison system that is on the verge of federal takeover. We're spending billions each year on our ever-growing prison system; that money could go to pre-K for children or infrastructure improvements or a tax break for hard-working, middle-class families.

Whether you think this affects you or not, I'm here to tell you it does. In Alabama, we never forget that our state motto is "We Dare Defend our Rights"---and these rights are in exceptional need of defending right now.

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