Race, Class and Prison

31 03 2010

Category: Criminal Law, Politics

Image from Texas Tough

The British Justice Minister was on the radio this morning proudly boasting about how long British prisoners are locked up for.

We sentence people for much longer in this country than in Europe and I am unapologetic about that   – Jack Straw

It’s a policy Britain imported from America.

Between 1965 and 2000, the US prison population went up 600%. The growth in Texas was double that. According to a new book by Robert Perkinson (Texas Tough; the Rise of a Prison Empire) it’s a victory for a penal policy that evolved from slavery.

After the defeat of the South in the Civil War, states began to use law enforcement as a way of retaining slavery by other means. Prisoners were hired out to work; cutting sugarcane, picking cotton, building railroads.

Whites were hired out too but generally for less backbreaking work. There was a Northern model too; based on rehabilitation. The South’s won out…

Perkinson’s study is race-centred, with good reason; black men in America are seven times more likely to go to prison than whites and twice as likely to go to prison as to college.

In the time since the civil rights legislation of the 1960s the rate of disparity between black and white prison populations has doubled; Perkinson sees this as an echo of the exploitation following the end of slavery; white power seeking to control black populations.

Perkinson concentrates on race but in America there was always a cross-over between race and class politics; now that America is becoming more ethnically diverse it seems likely that the class element will become more obvious. The legacy of slavery has always distorted the American political model in a way that was absent from most other mature democracies, and in the future American social issues ought to become much more about the rich and the poor; and those with a chance and those without.

Even with the racial element diminished or removed there are still questions of class, politics and social control as the British Justice Minister’s words reveal. There’s no sign of the prisons on either side of the Atlantic becoming less full any time soon.

See here for a review of the book in the New York Times.

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