The United States has less than five per cent of the world’s population but nearly a quarter (twenty-two per cent) of the world’s prisoners. The prison population of that country is 2.2 million which is nearly one per cent of all American adults – that’s nine in every one-thousand.
Thirty-seven per cent of prisoners are black – which is thirteen per cent of the population. White men have a one in seventeen chance of going to prison in their lifetime compared to a one in three chance for black men (1).
These figures represent a real racial divide in America’s criminal justice system.
In Baltimore on April 12, 2015, Freddie Carlos Gray, Jr., a 25-year-old African-American man was arrested by police then taken to the local police station in a van. One week later he was dead. The officer driving the van was charged with second-degree murder, and others were charged with crimes ranging from manslaughter to illegal arrest (2).
For former prisoner Eric Lockett, police racism in Baltimore is a systemic problem. Since the months following Freddie Gray’s murder there have been no signs of any easing of racial tensions between the police and the black community in Baltimore. As far as the African-American community is concerned, it’s a case of “business as usual”, he says.
According to Lockett crime in the city is not indicative of an African-American problem but rather a “poor problem…where their skin is their sin.”. This reflects the fact that a disproportionate amount of the poor in America are African-Americans’ whose disproportionately high levels of criminality is linked to their disproportionately high levels of poverty.
What all this appears to indicate is that America’s extraordinarily high prison population and the criminal justice system that oversees it, is a cash-cow for big business (3). For an illustration of the criminal ties associated with the prison industrial complex, you don’t need to go any further than the detention centre built in the era of Abraham Lincoln in the east of Baltimore where a culture of racketeering, drugs and money laundering is said to have been endemic (4).
In 1971, African-American Eddie Conway was convicted of murdering a police officer and the prison in east Baltimore was where he served his sentence. Conway says “the prison turns out a lot of angry people that bring their anger back into the community.”
Despite the racial tensions and the disproportionate amount of poverty within the African-American community that breeds it in places like Baltimore – in addition to the disproportionate crime levels of those African American’s who are imprisoned as a result of it – there appears to be no serious commitment by the Obama administration to reform the U.S criminal justice system.
One has to ask the question to what extent is the lobbying power of the major corporations’ that constitute the prison industrial complex undermining the potential for reform?