When I posted my “What I’m Listening to” for this book I said that, just in the first chapters, I kept getting a lot of Tupac lyrics stuck in my head. In particular the line, “Instead of a war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so police can bother me.” This book made me in turns fucking furious, and heartbroken and uncomfortable, and increasingly aware that the U.S. is doing a big thing badly and that big thing is incarcerating citizens.
In this book, Michelle Alexander examines America’s prison systems and makes the argument that mass incarceration is a system of racial control that has taken the place of Jim Crow. And, her argument is pretty convincing. She looks at how, not all at once, but little by little changes have been made that have largely affected poor people and people of color. She looks at changes in the welfare system, changes in policing, the militarization of policing, and changes in drug policy.
Last year, I heard Piper Kerman speak at a local library function and this revisited some of the things that she touched on in her talk (and that at friend of mine touched on in a chat after the talk). We send a lot of people to prison. We send people to prison for murder. We send people to prison for rape (although, not often and not for very long but that’s a topic of discussion for another day). And, we send lots and lots of people to prison for non-violent drug offenses. How are we serving these people by putting them away for non-violent crime? How are we serving their communities by taking them out of the community? How are we serving them and their communities by disenfranchising them after they have served their time? How are we serving them and their communities by making access to welfare and public housing impossible after being convicted of a felony? I get it, if people do “bad” things, you don’t want to feel like you’re rewarding them. But, if you have nothing because you’ve just spent many years in prison and you want to do right and get back into the world, how can you do that with so many avenues closed off to you?
I don’t know.
This book raised way more questions than it answered for me but I am glad that I read it even if it means I now have to spend time thinking about these issues and how I can help set them right.