A Broken System: The Cruel and Unusual Punishment of Black Men
BY: JENNA CALDWELL
Age 1: My father is a 22-year-old newlywed. He is convicted to ten years in federal prison.
In 2013, while eight percent of all federal criminal charges were dismissed, more than 97 percent of the remaining were resolved through plea bargains, and fewer than three percent went to trial.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads that we have the “right to a speedy and public trial,” with ‘speedy’ often meaning no trial at all. Arrestees are encouraged not to pursue trials by law officials, agreeing to serve a specific amount of time (whether they committed the crime or not), in exchange for not receiving more time if their case goes to court.
According to the NAACP, if African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately fifty percent. African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a non-violent drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).
Policies like “war on drugs” and “get tough on crime” were targeted at black communities, despite black people only representing 12 percent of the total population of drug users. These policies have become synonymous with the systematic racism that plagues black communities. There is no war on drugs, only a war on the poor, black and vulnerable.
My father claims that he was innocent.
Age 7: My father spends years in solitary confinement. He is allowed an hour outside his cell a day.
In May 2010, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was accused of stealing a backpack and charged with second degree robbery. Offered a plea bargain that would have allowed him to be released, Browder refused to be vilified for a crime that he did not commit. “If I just say that I did it, nothing’s gonna be done about it,” Browder said. “I didn’t do it. No justice is served.”
Browder spent approximately 800 of over 1,000 days on Rikers Island in solitary confinement. He was released in June 2013 and two years later he committed suicide by hanging. Having attempted multiple suicide attempts while incarcerated, the conditions of Browder’s solitary confinement may have caused the deterioration of his mental health.
According to the United Nations, solitary confinement in excess of 15 days is considered torture and should be prohibited.
My father doesn’t like to talk about it.
Age 9: My father is released from prison early. He stands in a doorway waiting for the welcoming embrace of his daughter that will never come. His presence is foreign.
According to the Prison Fellowship, every one in 28 children has an incarcerated parent, two-thirds of whom were convicted for nonviolent crimes. Out of these children, approximately every one in 110 white children and one in 15 black children has a parent behind bars.
My father wasn’t a monster, nor was he a stranger. And yet, he was both.
Upon returning to the same society that imprisoned them, there are few options for ex-cons. They are not only strangers to an employment world that disregards them, a culture that shames them and a family that loves them, but they also can become strangers to their children who remember little of them.
The absent black father has become a prevalent stereotype in our society, only further perpetuated by the criminalization of black men within the prison system.
Age 17: My father returns to prison.
According to the National Institute of Justice, within five years of release, approximately three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested. When prisoners return home, their options are limited, often returning to the same illegal activities that landed them in prison in the first place.
In 2015, President Barack Obama ordered federal agencies to stop asking prospective employees about their criminal histories at the beginning of the application process, with the goal of helping reintegrate former inmates into society.
Age 19: My father is released from prison. He does not call me.
I feel guilty.
Age 33: I stare into the faces of my three sons. I count every misbehavior, every act of disobedience. I wonder which will suffer the same fate as my father.
The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C. based prison reform advocacy group, reveals that every one in three black males born today will go to prison at some point in their lifetimes in a report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Comparatively, every one in six latino males and every one in 17 white males will be imprisoned over the course of their life.
“Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested,” the report explains. “Once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences.”
Definitively, racism is the “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.” The policing, arresting, aggressive sentencing and imprisonment of black men is not only the result of systematic racism but also a societal norm that many of us have come to accept.
Like periods and first kisses, imprisonment should not become a rite of passage.
I have become numb to the charges. I have become accepting of the sentences. I have become used to the vilification of black and brown bodies.
Do not become desensitized to these injustices.
The phone rings, I sigh, accept the charges and smile. “Hi Daddy.”
Cover photo provided by Jenna Caldwell.