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« Who wrote the history books? | Main | TMI »

March 30, 2007


As you probably know, many of the men behind bars have children. (If you didn't know that, please click here to remedy your ignorance. Actually, click there even if you did know that. Thank you.) If you're like most Americans, including -- I'm ashamed to admit -- me, you "view these men — dope sellers, petty thieves — as fathers in name only, with few ties to their kids." I mean, come on, really, what percentage of them lived with their kids at the time of their arrest? Ten percent? Fifteen?

Try half, which is not that much less than the national average (66 percent) and pretty remarkable given the background of most of these men.

This is my way of saying that if you have 20 minutes in which you are not otherwise doing something absolutely vital, please read "The American Prison Nightmare" by Jason DeParle over at the New York Review of Books.

In his review essay, DeParle accomplishes a feat he graciously attributes to one of the books he's reviewing, Punishment and Inequality in America by Bruce Western: he makes the reality and impact of American mass incarceration "less vague." He describes the way that our criminal justice system in which, as governor Mike Huckabee (bless him!) and our own Pat Nolan put it, "We lock up a lot of people we are mad at rather than the ones we are really afraid of," at the very least compounds the tragedy of the black underclass.

Much about black underclass life is tragic, but the racial imbalance in the prison population is particularly extreme. For example, while blacks are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, they now go to prison eight times as often. We are used to thinking of prison as at least partially a byproduct of the larger tragedy of poverty; Western depicts it as a cause. Through mass incarceration, he writes, "the poor are made poorer and have fewer prospects."

Remember what Huckabee said about locking up people "we are mad at"? Meet the "war on drugs," whose principal targets were (and are) black. Whatever you think of law enforcement as an anti-drug strategy (I'm ambivalent) we can all agree that any effective -- not to mention just -- strategy would be directed at those most likely to use drugs, who, by the way, aren't African-Americans. Not even close.

Reading DeParle's rehearsal of the waste and inequity (not to mention his quoting Chuck) made me pace my home in an autistic-like furor and call my friend Dave the Swede (not his real name) to rant on the phone.

It also put me in the mood for Marvin Gaye:

Oh, make me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands
Yea, it makes me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands

I know how he felt.

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