Is prison clemency the answer?
On July 16, President Barack Obama made a visit to a federal prison in Reno, Okla., to bring attention in his own way to the criminality of the U.S. criminal justice system and its biased laws, especially toward people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. It is the first time that a U.S. president has ever visited a federal correctional facility. Obama stated that as a youth who smoked marijuana and tried cocaine, he could have easily found himself in the same situation as hundreds of thousands of people like the six prisoners he spoke to in the prison. HBO is scheduled to air that interview as part of a Vice documentary sometime in the fall.
Just three days before his visit, on July 13, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 people convicted of nonviolent offenses, mostly associated with either drug use or petty drug sales. On the White House Facebook page was a statement that those granted clemency had sentences ranging from 20 years to life. There are debates in Congress on sentencing “reform” for nonviolent offenders. While this is truly a national and even international scandal of epic proportions, it is just the tip of the iceberg, especially when it comes to targeting people of color and the poor.
It is important to raise first and foremost that the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population at 2.2 million people, marking a 500 percent increase over the last 30 years. According to the Sentencing Project, half of all federal prisoners were convicted of drug charges, with a 13 percent increase of prisoners in state prisons since 1980. The majority of these prisoners, federal and state, had no prior criminal record. These numbers don’t even include the thousands of immigrants, including women and youth, held in detention centers.
To expose the racist institutionalized sentencing policy for these so-called crimes, two-thirds of the prison population are people of color, with one out of 10 Black men in their thirties in prison on any given day. The “war on drugs,” which intensified under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, has evolved into a genocidal war on people of color, especially in the African-American community. Coupled with daily police and vigilante killings of Black men and women, including trans people, and fueled by an unprecedented economic crisis of no jobs and low-wage jobs, this genocidal war is becoming more and more devastating.
To break this down even further, an April 20 Upshot analysis pointed out that there are 1.5 million missing Black men in the U.S.: missing meaning they have suffered either early deaths or mass incarceration. The study goes on to say that more than one out of every six Black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old has disappeared from daily life.
Any discussion that is taking place in Congress or the White House is tantamount to putting a Band-Aid on a cancer when it comes to any kind of prison reform. Providing clemency for a handful of victims is a good start, but it’s far from the solution.
The truth of the matter is that the entire U.S. prison system cannot be reformed, but has to be uprooted from the bottom up. Federal and private funds in the billions of dollars, which are invested in prisons for profits, should be put into a massive jobs program, including job training, that will pay a living wage and provide benefits.
This is the only solution that will begin the process of decriminalizing young workers of color. And this solution can only come about with a united anti-capitalist struggle of all the workers and the oppressed.
Photo: Aides to U.S. President Barack Obama (not seen) enter the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution after Obama in El Reno, Oklahoma July 16.