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Land of the Unfree, Home of 25% of the World’s Prisoners

Trigger Warning // Death Penalty 

Before continuing with my post, I write with a heavy heart and soul about the story of Brandon Bernard, a Black man who was killed at the hands of the state. He was sentenced to death row at the age of 18 in 1999, and was murdered on December 11th, 2020 around 9:30 PM. I urge you all to read about his story, given that you have the capacity to do so.

With this in mind, it’s important for everyone to know that COVID-19 has now hit federal death row. Dustin Higgs, a man scheduled to be killed on January 15th, has been infected with the virus. This needs to be put to an end. The following link is a website into Dustin Higgs’s story, and petitions that you can sign to help him, and other incarcerated individuals sitting on death row, to stay alive: 

http://www.savedustinjhiggs.com/

I’ve also provided a link to a twitter thread on people who are currently sitting on death row who need our help:

There is no justification for the death penalty, and although the state has failed Brandon, we have the ability to help others who are in his same situation. I hope you’re all continuing to stay safe and healthy in a world where we’re surrounded by sickness, whether that’d be COVID, racism, mass incarceration, hunger, or poverty. I have no doubt that this group is serving as a beacon of light and taking those first steps into a better and brighter future.

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“While the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has nearly 25% of its prisoners– about 2.2 million people” – American Psychological Association

“There are 3 million people in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime.” 

“African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.”

-NAACP

“1 in 3 Black men born in 2001 can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.”

-The Sentencing Project

Read those statistics over again and allow them to marinate. At this very moment, the United States has over 2 million people in prison and jails, most of which are African American men, and is spending around $80 billion dollars a year to keep them in there. And the reality outside of prisons isn’t so reassuring either, as the threat of police brutality looms around every corner for Black Americans. This is the other pandemic that is currently, and has been for years, plaguing the United States: mass incarceration. 

And this begs the question: Are prisons obsolete? 

When we talk about the obsolescence of prisons, we have to understand how the prison system came to be. Within the institution of slavery came the advent of a policing force that served as a “slave patrol”, meaning that a patrol force was sent out to capture, terrorize, and brutalize people who were enslaved, and Black people who were deemed as free. Soon after, slavery was abolished through the integration of the 13th amendment. However, there was a specific loophole in that amendment that actually allows slavery to exist, legally, which still bleeds into our society today. The 13th amendment justifies slavery only as a punishment if they are convicted of a crime. This gave an incentive for white supremacists to put Black people in jail. As time went on, and as more and more prisons became privatized, those labeled criminals eventually became commodities, because the people who were suddenly imprisoned were no longer considered as people. They were now property of the state. The brutalization of Black peoples’ bodies was a fundamental aspect of America’s police and prison systems. 

When considering the way the United States government tries to exemplify the ways in which it’s democratic, we primarily look at the act of voting. American “democracy” is contingent on the fact that citizens are able to vote on our leaders and representatives. However, the prison system makes it impossible for incarcerated individuals to be fully initiated as citizens. Those who have been branded as criminals are stripped of their right to vote, and aren’t allowed to have a say in who represents them within the United States government. And since the voice of incarcerated individuals has been taken away, politicians don’t have an incentive to fight for the implementation of policies that include rights for inmates (because let’s face it, American politicians operate on an incentive basis). And not only are their voting rights taken away, but so are job opportunities and compensation for labor they’ve done while imprisoned. According to the 13th amendment, slavery is considered unconstitutional unless it exists as punishment for a crime of which the person has been convicted of. So, it’s legal for incarcerated individuals to work intensive labor jobs that can potentially cause serious harm (like the incarcerated men who were forced to fight the California wildfires and weren’t paid or allowed to pursue jobs as firefighters when they were released) and not pay them, which unfortunately, for a society in the late stages of capitalism, is the only way to survive. 

When slavery was abolished, white supremacists were committed to perpetuating this institution that deemed Black-Americans as second class citizens, even if it didn’t outwardly present itself as slavery. Instead, they found loopholes and passed legislation that furthered the disenfranchisement of Black people. Eventually, this led to mass incarceration, the new and rebranded form of enslavement, an institution where almost 40% of inmates are Black. A line has to be drawn here, because democracy should not come at the expense of the displacement and disenfranchisement of a whole entire group of people. For a country that markets itself on the world stage as a free democracy that offers liberty and justice for all, rates of incarceration say otherwise. For a country that prides itself on being the land of the free and the home of the brave, we have an entirely long way to go. 

“No one of us can be free until everybody is free” -Maya Angelou 

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