Crack Houses and Mass Incarceration

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Rooming house in Jackson Ward, Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/1988

The deeply disturbing underbelly of the American life many of us have the mixed-blessing privilege of not having to confront: the racist premises of and fallout from our War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs was begun by President Reagan in 1982, and was continued by both Bush administrations, as well as by President Clinton in between the two Bush presidencies. Remember all the crack houses, crack babies, crack crimes, and Welfare Queens that were invoked to stoke the fervor and the funding for the War on Drugs?

As Michelle Alexander points out in her excellent book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2011), President Reagan began the War on Drugs before crack cocaine was introduced into impoverished, mainly African American inner-city neighborhoods as a ‘cheap high’ substitute for the high-priced White Collar cocaine. All of the ensuing efforts to get ‘tough on crime’ and ‘one strike–you’re out’ have resulted in the U.S. now having highest rate of incarceration in the world. We also have the highest proportion of our racial and ethnic minorities incarcerated. In fact, we have a larger percentage of our black population imprisoned than did South Africa under the height of Apartheid.

The War on Drugs hasn’t made us any safer, as various politicians have tried to make us believe over the past thirty years. It has made us sicker in body, mind, and soul–all of us. It has contributed to a worsening of health inequities since incarceration leads to a never-ending system of debt, to permanent disenfranchisement by taking away people’s voting rights, and of making it almost impossible for people to find jobs and housing once they are released from prison. Not to mention the negative health effects of incarceration on families. I have worked in prisons and in juvenile detention and knew about many of these issues. But I had not really thought of it as a continuation of slavery, Black Codes/ Jim Crow until I read this book and participated in a University of Washington Teach-In on the topic last week.

Here is one of the more piercing passages of Alexander’s book:

“When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color–people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits–and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt–these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families.” p175.

And for an excellent recent report on the public health effects of mass incarceration, take at look at the Vera Institute for Justice’s “On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

At the end of one of the Teach-In sessions “No Sanctuary: Understanding Historical and Contemporary Intersections of Mass Incarceration, Racism, and Health,” Dr. Alexes Harris stated, “The U.S. has always had an insidious system of social control targeted at those who are racialized and poor,” and then she asked each of us audience members, “How do you perpetuate this system?” On this Presidents Day, what an excellent question to ask ourselves.

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