Mass Incarceration USA: How a Broken System Perpetuates Itself

“Wheel about and turn about and do just so. Every time I turn about I jump Jim Crow.” 
— chorus of an 1828 minstrel song

“We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.”
Michelle AlexanderThe New Jim Crow

Yeah, it’s called mass incarceration. Our jails are filled with black and brown men and women. The number of inmates, primarily people of color, has soared sevenfold in the last three decades, according to Alexander, from 300,000 to more than 2 million, the largest number, by far, in the developed world. Many millions more are on probation or parole. And no matter what their crime, the inmates never get their citizenship back. The stigma of being an ex-felon brands someone for life as a second-class human being.

But even before the ex-felon label is attached, certain people — young men of color, in particular — are targeted as society’s losers by the police, judicial bureaucracy and prison system. They face the possibility of police harassment, invasion of privacy and arrest, often on the smallest pretext possible, pretty much any time they step outside.

I live in a vital, racially and ethnically diverse Chicago neighborhood and I watch it happen — racial profiling, the stop-and-frisk game. This is not making my neighborhood safer. It’s wrecking lives at enormous public expense and, of course, like the insane war on terror, creating enemies. We don’t need a justice system based on stereotypes and armed bullying.

“His hearing’s at 1? OK,” I said, “I’ll try to make it.”

This was three days ago. Oh God. It was pretty much the last thing I wanted to do. I knew what had happened. A few days earlier, a young man, Jerry, who is part of a local discussion and support group I’ve gotten involved with called Circles and Ciphers, had gotten arrested . . . for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk.

That’s how it started. Two plainclothes officers stopped him for what legally is known as a petty offense, the equivalent of jaywalking or letting your parking meter expire — and a “crime” committed every day by happy families, children, all sorts of people who want to avoid dangerous street traffic. Jerry, who is a black man, wasn’t simply stopped. He was arrested. After all, he had committed a crime. He was handcuffed, put into the squad car, taken to the local police station.

No one I’ve talked to has any idea what happened to his bike. Was it confiscated? Left at the scene?

He may have been upset by the possibility of losing his bike. He may have been upset by the fact that he was supposed to be starting a new job the following day. In any case, he found himself sitting in handcuffs at the police station. When one of the arresting officers approached him, Jerry allegedly stood up and kicked at the officer, hitting him in the shin. And the petty offense suddenly turned into a felony. He was charged with aggravated assault.

Chicago, crime-ridden city! This is how the statistics swell.

Jerry’s hearing was on Monday. The Circles and Ciphers organizers wanted to get supporters in the courtroom; apparently that can make a difference. I had never done anything quite like this before.

Indeed, the court building is alien territory: the state vs. everyone. I understand the point of metal detectors, airport-style security screenings, and try to have a sense of humor about emptying my pockets, taking off my belt. I tried to maintain the attitude of a citizen: This is my court system. I have a right to be here. But it wasn’t easy. I felt at best warily tolerated and, in fact, unwelcome as a full citizen.

I sat down in the courtroom. When the hearing began, I took a pen and piece of paper out of my pocket and started scribbling notes. Uh-oh. Suddenly the security officer tasked with keeping order in the court gave me an angry stare, pointed at me and shook her head. No notes! I couldn’t believe it, but stuck the Bic pen, dangerous tool, back in my pocket, vowing to check the legality of this restriction later. (There is none.)

The hearing itself lasted all of, maybe, six or seven minutes. A public defender asked the police officer what happened. He explained that the defendant had been arrested for the misdemeanor of riding his bike on the sidewalk, but the judge interrupted him. Riding a bike on the sidewalk is a petty offense, not a misdemeanor, she said. I wasn’t aware there was a category of crime more trivial than a misdemeanor; now I knew. A few questions later — the officer described the alleged assault, testified that he did not require medical attention — and it was all over. Jerry was led from the courtroom. I got up and left.

There’s more to come, of course. Jerry wasn’t released. The case wasn’t thrown out. What hangs in the balance for the young defendant is possible jail time and the lifelong scar of “ex-felon.” To what end? Public safety wasn’t served. No healing took place. Absolutely nothing was accomplished by this elaborate and costly drama except that a broken system perpetuated itself. And Jim Crow won again.

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at

#Abraham Lincoln- on Felons Right to vote

By Oct. 25, 2012
Image: The statue of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial
DAVE ETHERIDGE-BARNES / GETTY IMAGESThe statue of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial

Last month at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, I had the opportunity to see Abraham Lincoln’s draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, written in his remarkably elegant, almost feminine handwriting. I was surprised by my reaction. I felt a warm flush of gratitude, and even found myself murmuring “Thank you.” The freedom of four million people is no small thing.

(MORECover Story: Lincoln to the Rescue by David von Drehle)

Lincoln not only advocated black freedom, but in the last speech of his life, he voiced support for giving the vote to some freed black men as well as about 200,000 black Civil War veterans, a decision that literally cost him his life. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was in the audience that night and upon hearing Lincoln’s views, turned to his companion and said “that means ni**er citizenship. Now by God, I’ll put him through.” Two days later, Booth murdered the President.

Knowing that, I began to wonder what Lincoln would make of controversial laws denying far too many blacks the right to vote today. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander has pointed out in her book, The New Jim Crow, more black people are either in prison or jail, or on probation, or parole than were enslaved when the Civil War began. What that means is that in 2004, almost 280,000 black women were denied the vote, even if they had already served theirtime. And if the research that we have from 2010 holds true for today, at least 1.4 million black men will be denied their right to vote on this upcoming election day. Nationwide, almost eight percent of all African Americans—and 13 percent of all black men—will not be able to cast a vote next month. These laws hit blacks disproportionately hard. Although 3.9 million whites also lost the right to vote due to these laws, that figure represents roughly 2 percent of their total population. Overall, these numbers are so troubling that in 2008, a United Nations Committee studies the issue and urged the United States to reform these laws.

(MORETouré: Put To Death for Being Black? New Hope Against Judicial System Bias)

These so called “felony disenfranchisement” policies were first enacted in Southern states beginning in 1870 when the 15th amendment giving black men the right to vote was ratified. The policies were designed to keep blacks from going to the polls, and they continue to do so today. The laws prohibit voting in both state and federal elections and, as was true in the 19th century, are enacted on a state-by-state basis. As a recent report from the Sentencing Project shows, while 9 states impose a lifetime voting ban on convicted felons, in 32 states felons can vote after completing parole and three states have no prohibition and even allow prisoners to vote. A majority of those denied access to voting are in the South: Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia and in some of these states, felony convictions have led to staggeringly high percentages of blacks losing their right to vote. For example, this year in Virginia such laws will deny 20 percent of the overall black population the right to vote, and in Florida the number is an even higher 23 percent.

(MOREViewpoint: Will Blacks Vote For Obama Because He’s Black?)

Unlike giving black men the vote in Lincoln’s time, public opinion today largely favors restoring voting rights to felons after they have served their time. In one of the few polls on the issue, University of Minnesota Professor Christopher Uggen conducted a telephone survey involving a random sample of 1000 people. Sixty percent thought voting rights should be restored as soon as an individual left prison and 68% thought we should wait until they had completed parole. But only 31% believed that current prisoners should be allowed to vote, which may be in part because it could be quite easy for prison officials to coerce the votes of those still behind bars.

For those who have completed their sentence however, research shows that when voting rights are restored, they have a much lower chance of becoming repeat offenders, and are more productively integrated back into their communities.

In Lincoln’s day, John Wilkes Booth was far from alone in his views about black people and voting. Following Lincoln’s death, black enfranchisement continued to be hotly and even violently contested throughout the south for the next 100 years, up to and even after the passage of the voting rights act in 1965. But considering that today enfranchisement for former felons enjoys widespread public support, we need only turn that support into political will and then action. We know what Lincoln would do. The question is, are we willing to follow his example?


Rooks is an associate professor at Cornell University. The views expressed are solely her own.

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