Our Collective Responsibility To Black MalesAs he went through cold-bath fields he saw a solitary cell; and the devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint for improving his prisons in hell.
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writer and poetIn Cambridge, Mass., a speaker on race relations asked these questions: “Where are our young African American males? Why aren’t there more of them in our undergraduate institutions of higher education?”
When an acknowledged expert on race relations raises questions like these, our collective psychological antennae should shoot skyward, our hands should move out toward our fellow man, and our commitment to community and societal betterment should awaken.
On Aug. 28, 2002, the New York Times reported findings from a study stating “the African American male prison population has increased 500 percent in the past 20 years, to the point that there are more African American males incarcerated than there are in American colleges and universities.” Twenty years ago, the opposite was true: More African American males were enrolled in higher education than were incarcerated.
Research compiled by the Justice Policy Institute shows that in 1980, 463,700 Black men were enrolled in higher education in comparison to 143,000 incarcerated. In 2000, the study found that 603,032 Black men were enrolled in higher education, whereas 791,600 were languishing in jails and prisons. Cells are being built for expanding populations, which are increasing at the expense of classrooms and laboratories at colleges and universities.
Little attention was given to a recent national press release that stated, “The United States has become number one among all nations in a crucial statistic — the number of people locked up in jails and prisons.” As of June 30, 2002, the number of people behind bars in the United States surpassed the 2 million mark. According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States has overtaken Russia as the world’s number one jailer with 1.35 million inmates in state and federal prisons. Approximately 650,000 incarcerated Americans can be found in city and county jails. The nation’s jails and prisons held one out of every 142 U.S. residents in June 2002, with the majority being African Americans.
The following considerations are designed to enlighten public thinking on the cited statistics, and to make recommendations that might lessen the plight of African American males under the supervision of the criminal justice system:
• Historically Black colleges and universities, civic groups, progressive churches and humanitarian activists must aggressively press for a nationwide moratorium on human incarceration. This action will move the nation’s conscience toward believing that building better people is a preferred alternative to building jails and prisons with the intent of filling them.
• Comprehensive judicial reform must be seriously studied, with the end result being programs designed to punish non-violent criminals by having them work (and sweat) and pay dues to society. But on the other hand, there is a drastic need for the nation to find viable and meaningful ways to “appropriately” punish serious offenders with the results being advantageous to society.
• The criminal justice system must earnestly begin to develop laws and statutes to promote fairness and equity in the criminal justice system. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy weighed in on this matter recently at the American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco, where he said, “Prison terms are too long.” Justice Kennedy favors scrapping the practice of setting mandatory minimum sentences for some federal crimes.
• K-12 public education and alternative school programs need ample resources to identify youth, regardless of their race or ethnicity, who might be facing the judicial system. Programs with national prominence must be identified and presented as models to be emulated.
• The disenfranchisement of millions of felons is a disgrace, when, in 10 states, one in five African American men, American-born and raised, are ineligible to vote due to being felons. Having paid their debt to society, yet unable to vote, these citizens are being subjected to double jeopardy.
• More reliable answers must be provided as to why half of the inmates in the nation’s jails and prisons are African Americans, a group that makes up only 12 percent of the population.
The nation’s history of warehousing inmates, mostly African American men, is shameful. As a nation, we have to remedy this problem, beginning with better public education, jobs, family and community nurturing, and programs designed to alleviate lawlessness. German author Jacob Wassermann said, “In every person, there is an inherent desire to attain balance.” Our nation has a responsibility to assist African American men in attaining balance, and in the process attain balance ourselves. Excessive incarceration is not the solution. n
— Dr. Angela W. Williams is an associate professor of chemistry and chair of the department of chemistry; Dr. Howard D. Hill is a professor of educational leadership and vice president for academic affairs; and Schiria P. Wilson is an instructor in the department of history and sociology. All are at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C.
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