I spent some time this week with NAACP officials analyzing the Georgia Prison Strike that occurred last month. The fallout has been unbelievable, as some of the inmates were reportedly beaten with hammers for choosing to participate in the work stoppage. One of the inmates allegedly has brain damage and is in a wheelchair as a result of the beatings. Perhaps that’s what happens when you simply ask for basic human rights, which we’ve denied prison inmates for far too long.
Seeing what happened to these brothers and sisters after this incident was a cold, stern reminder that there is an infinite amount of work that needs to be done to clean up our criminal justice system. Most of us think that prison has nothing to do with us, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. One out of every three black boys born this decade is expected to spend time in state prison, federal prison or local jails. Also, the United States puts more people in prison than any country in the world, and most of us are only God’s grace or one bad situation away from ending up in the big house. Additionally, there are millions of black folks who’ve seen their fathers, brothers, sisters or cousins negatively impacted and traumatized by this system, even when they were innocent. The experience of prison is bad enough and only made worse by not being able to get a job for life, losing the right to vote, and not having access to housing or education.
One of the things that continues to confuse me is the short-sighted exuberance some have felt from the release of Jamie and Gladys Scott in Mississippi. I applauded the release of the sisters, for their sentences were severe. But I remained disturbed by those who are so focused on Jamie and Gladys that they’ve forgotten about hundreds of thousands of other men and women who are incarcerated but don’t have vocal and dedicated advocates on the outside. Also, even though it’s not clear what role Jamie and Gladys played in the crimes for which they are accused, there are thousands of cases like that of Rodney K. Stanberry, where there is clear and convincing evidence that he played no role in committing the crime for which he has been incarcerated.
This is not to say that we are wrong to celebrate the symbolism behind the Scott sisters case. But we must also remember that symbolism only gets you so far. The reality is that the entire prison system is in desperate need of reform, and individual crusades are only meaningful if 0ur eyes are kept on the larger issue. Now that Jamie and Gladys Scott are free, I am wondering if those who fought on their behalf are going to turn their sights onto Attorney General Eric Holder to deal with the plague of mass incarceration and legalized slavery within the prison industrial complex. The most dangerous thing happening in America right now is that we have a DIRECT INCENTIVE to incarcerate as many people as possible, because prison labor is a profitable commodity that allows major corporations to compete in a globalized economy. Many of the companies you know and love, including Nike, Dell Computers and McDonald’s are more than happy to utilize prison labor to keep wages down. Being enslaved by another person is not nearly as scary as being enslaved by capitalism, because corporate greed is not designed to show any form of mercy.
We must all take a stand on this issue. At NeverGoingBack.org, we are forming coalitions to fight with other groups on the Georgia Prison Strike. We are then going to continue to investigate and challenge the mass incarceration problem all throughout the United States. Dedicated scholars and leaders like Professor Miriam Harris, financial expert Ryan Mack, legal analyst Elliot Millner, Professor Wilmer Leon, Professor Christopher Metzler and others are going to push this issue like no other, primarily because the lives of our babies depend on it. To make a long story short, we are ride-or-die when it comes to the people we care about, and you should feel that way too.
The Scott sisters was a compelling case, but it was just one case. Rather than focusing on individual challenges and hoping that the stars align to help us free one or two people at a time, it makes the most sense to aim for broader challenges that will impact the lives of millions. Everyone should be a soldier in this game and no one should be sitting on the sidelines. What are you going to do?
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Scholar at the Institute for Black Public Policy and the founder of the Your Black World Coalition (YourBlackWorld.com). To find out how you can help, please visit NeverGoingBack.org.