Learning about the pipeline to prison

In March 2017, I participated in an MCC-organized Pipeline to Prison learning tour in Louisiana. Over the course of the week, which included a visit to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary (commonly referred to as Angola Prison), our group confronted the scope of mass incarceration in the United States and its racialized nature.

The U.S. leads the world in incarcerating its people. One-fourth of all the prisoners in the world are held in U.S. prisons. The scope of incarceration in the U.S. has ballooned dramatically over the past decades. In 1970, 357,292 men and women were incarcerated. By 2014, 2.3 million prisoners were held in America’s jails and prisons, of whom nearly a million were African-American.

The blight of mass incarceration is particularly evident in Louisiana, the state with the highest per capita rate of incarceration, with one in three African-American men behind bars (compared to one in 17 white men imprisoned). Our group heard from speakers who linked contemporary mass incarceration to ways that southern states like Louisiana, following the Civil War, began using the criminal justice system as an institutional form of slavery by creating laws specifically crafted to convict and incarcerate African Americans, compelling them to work to rebuild the war-devastated states. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander, meanwhile, has argued that mass incarceration of people of color represents a new form of Jim Crow-era laws that disenfranchised African Americans.

A visit to Angola Prison underscores how legacies of slavery live on in contemporary mass incarceration. Angola sits on 18,000 acres of land that formerly belonged to four slave plantations. Today, it houses more than six thousand inmates, three-fourths of whom are black, many of whom can expect to spend most, if not all, of their lives there. Angola is a stark example of multiple facets of the so-called prison-industrial complex, including how prisoners are used as a source of cheap labor by corporations. Industries at Angola include making wheel chairs, license plates and caskets. Inmates also raise dogs that are crossbred with wolves to sell outside the prison. Vegetable farming by prison labor provides income for the prison, with most of the produce sold rather than being served to inmates. Companies such as Walmart, Koch Industries, AT&T, Aramark, Horizon Health Care, JCPenny, Victoria’s Secret and others benefit from the work of cheap labor provided by incarcerated persons. Prisoners are paid US$.02/hour for unskilled field labor and US$.20/hour for skilled labor.

Our tour group met Earl Truvia, an unjustly convicted African-American man who spent 27 years at Angola before being exonerated in June 2003. Truvia explained that “Everyone in Angola is victimized. Morally, everyone in there is a victim.” Truvia’s experience reflects how African Americans experience a different system of justice in the United States than whites.  Arrested at age 17, the court system waited until his eighteenth birthday, when he could be legally sentenced as an adult, to convict him. He was given a life sentence with eligibility for parole in 40 years. During his nearly three decades of incarceration, Truvia at times chose to go into isolation, allowing himself time to study the prison system and educate himself on what had happened to him.  He discovered that the district attorney concealed evidence from the police report that would have exonerated him had it been given to his defense attorney. Without this information, it took the jury only 12 minutes to convict him. Truvia was eventually released through the assistance of The Innocence Project.

Throughout the learning tour we heard from speakers who analyzed the reasons behind contemporary mass incarceration—both the increased numbers of inmates and the racial disparities in the expanding prison population. The so-called War on Drugs from the early 1980s led to the imprisonment of blacks at a much higher rate than whites. African Americans were arrested at a 13% higher rate for marijuana possession than whites, even though studies show marijuana use at the same rates for both groups. At the same time, the War on Drugs promoted stricter sentencing guidelines for crack users compared to powdered cocaine users. This led to longer prison terms for African Americans, since crack users were usually black. Cocaine users tended to be white.

The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (commonly known as the “Crime Bill”) exacerbated the escalating problem of mass incarceration with the creation of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and the introduction of habitual offender (or “three-strikes”) policies. The efforts by the American Legislation Exchange Council (ALEC) to draft bills for submission to Congress and state legislatures around prison policy is particularly noteworthy. These draft bills pushed for mandatory minimum sentences and the creation of private, for-profit prisons. ALEC thus played a damaging role in the rise of mass incarceration.

The Pipeline to Prison learning tour challenged me to recognize my “whiteness,” and the ways that in our racialized society it shields me in ways that people of color do not experience. I’m still processing what I saw, heard and felt during this intense week. It was indeed a learning tour.

Elaine Ewert Kroeker of Bingham Lake, Minnesota, a graduate of Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, holds a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Kansas State University.

Learn more

Alexander Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

The New Jim Crow Study Guide and Call to Action. Atlanta: Bookbright Media, 2013.

13th. Film. Directed by Ava Duvernay. 2016 Available on Netflix.

MCC has organized Pipeline to Prison learning tours in Philadelphia and New Orleans. From August 5-10, 2018, MCC will host another Pipeline to Prison learning tour in and around Goshen, Indiana. For more information, visit https://mcc.org/get-involved/events/pipeline-prison-learning-tour-indiana.

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