The heroic prison strike that took place in Georgia this month has finally come to an end. Other than the inmates who are still holding out, most of the others have been released from the massive lock down and agreed to go back to work. Progress was made during the strike, and negotiations are still underway.
I was scheduled to meet with Elaine Brown, one of the leaders of the movement last night. For some reason, we weren't able to find her. But I'm sure that whatever she was doing was more important than talking to me. Tomorrow morning I'll be speaking with Rev. Jesse Jackson on the matter, and then Monday, I speak with Rev. Al Sharpton. In fact, I'll be speaking to everyone I know about this issue for as long as I possibly can.
One of the things that I believe, and I'm sure Elaine agrees, is that the strike was a significant step in getting the public to recognize the urgent need to reform our criminal justice system. It's important for people to realize that supporting the human rights of prison inmates is not a matter of being soft on crime. Instead, it's a matter of being intelligent about how systems operate so that those who are willing to rehabilitate themselves can return to their communities in a productive capacity. We cannot afford to keep throwing away every black child who makes a mistake.
Even though reports are stating that the strike is effectively over, the momentum created by the activities of these inmates cannot be understated. By coming together in such an amazing way, the individuals in the Georgia State correctional system have made a strong statement for human rights around the world. They have also taught us a few things about America, the prison system and ourselves. Here are a few lessons to ponder:
1) Prison inmates are not dumb and worthless human beings: The same brilliance that it took for the Georgia inmates to coordinate their protest, write public statements and become conscious of their human rights can be applied to nearly anything they try to do. Our society has been trained to believe that anyone who breaks the law is somehow worthless to society, but if that's the case, then we can say the same thing about Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Martin Luther King and even Jesus. The truth is that while there are certainly inmates who deserve to be punished, the punishment should not be for life for most of the individuals who are convicted. By marginalizing prison inmates and not creating opportunities for them to add to our society, we are only throwing away potentially productive human capital and destroying families, making the problem worse and more expensive over time.
2) Prisons should be used to rehabilitate, not to make our society worse than it is: I've never understood the mindset of those who don't feel that prison inmates deserve access to an education. Do you really want an uneducated, unemployed ex-convict living in your neighborhood or raising children who attend school with your child? I thought not. Giving inmates access to quality education gives them a choice of returning to a life of crime or doing something better. I can tell you with all sincerity that if I had no education, no job and no way of providing for my family, I'd be willing to consider all alternatives to get my children what they need. Instead, a little opportunity and divine intervention turned me into a college professor instead of a menace to society.
3) There should be additional oversight in the prison system: Prisons are like universities in that they are given the ability to operate without sufficient checks and balances on their behavior. As a result, many universities are among the last bastions of serious segregation in our society (my business school at Syracuse didn't grant tenure to an African American in any department in over 100 years of existence), and prisons are also allowed to consistently violate the human rights of their inmates. As much as the United States criticizes nations like China for their human rights violations, consider this: China has only 3/4 as many of its citizens in prison relative to the United States (2.1 million to 1.6 million), and they have a population that is four times greater than our own. When it comes to violating the human rights of minorities and the poor, the United States has become a global leader.
4) The black community is being destroyed by our prisons: Nearly every black person I know has been affected by the prison system in one way or the other. If you haven't been in the criminal justice system, you probably have a parent, brother or cousin who has. If that's not the case, then you've possibly mentored or helped raise a child whose parent was incarcerated. Out of the 1.8 million African American men that live in the United States, nearly 200,000 of them are in state or federal prison, or in a local jail. According to a 2003 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 32 percent of black males born in the year 2001 can expect to spend time in state or federal prison during their lifetime. This means that the little boy you're raising right now has a prison bed already made out for him. Your daughter is going to try to find a husband and end up meeting several men who have interacted with this system. Therefore, it is not only in our incentive to teach our kids how to avoid these systems, we must also confront the systems themselves so that making a mistake at an early age does not lead to a death sentence on an individual's entire future.
5) Black politicians and public figures must get involved: I wrote an article recently about how the Congressional Black Caucus was as quiet as a church mouse during the Georgia prison strike. While I get quite a few statements about the fabulous work they are doing for the Hispanic community (i.e. the DREAM Act), the war in Afghanistan, and much more, I don't see much in terms of fighting for the human rights of prison inmates. I'd love to see black politicians stop acting as if ex-convicts are sub-human individuals who deserve to be raped and beaten, and start realizing that many of them (not all) are fractured souls who made bad choices at an early age. Also, as much as rappers love to bust rhymes about selling dope, going to prison and getting shot, leading hip hop artists should be issuing statements in support of the Georgia prison protest and offering to help.
One of the reasons that the Nazis were able to execute so many Jews was because the good-hearted members of society were convinced that those being exterminated deserved their fates. By separating people into the "us" and "them" groups, the powers that be are able to slowly but surely eat away at civil liberties for us all. When Jesus was thrust upon the cross, many mistook legality for morality to believe that he must have been doing something wrong because he was being punished. But we must understand that applying the arbitrary label of "convict" onto someone does not imply that we have the right to disrespect ourselves, our society and our freedom by making that person into a slave. In fact, most of us are not as far away from this system as we'd like to believe, just ask Wesley Snipes.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the bookBlack American Money To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.