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Blacks in prison: Not an issue of prejudice

Blacks constitute about 11 percent of the population of California, and about 30 percent of the prison population of the state

Editor’s note: An opinion article in the New York Times last month by Michelle Alexander titled “In prison reform, money trumps civil rights” she stated “thirty years of civil rights litigation and advocacy have failed to slow the pace of a racially biased drug war or to prevent the emergence of a penal system of astonishing size.” Columnist Bob Walsh said “that’s politics in the real world. Any expenditure of public funds has politics attached to it.”

I may be the wrong person to comment on this article and the attitude it expresses. I am a white male in my early 60s. I was born in Oakland, Calif. and lived my very early years with my parents and siblings in the projects in East Oakland. When I was about 7 we moved to a nearby house my parents bought in San Leandro, Calif., which at the time was often referred to as a White Ghetto or White Bastion, depending on who you asked.

After that move my total exposure to blacks, at least at school, was one black student for one half of one year for all the years I went to school in San Leandro. I shared no classes with him. We had no black neighbors. No one in San Leandro had black neighbors.

Blacks constitute about 11 percent of the population of California. They constitute about 30 percent of the prison population of the state. Obviously the criminal justice system has a disproportionate impact on blacks, especially black males. That is unquestionable. A reasonable question, though, is whether or not the system is prejudiced against blacks. It is not the same thing. It would be reasonable and logical to conclude that the system is prejudiced. It would also be logical to conclude the system is prejudiced against persons of lower socio-economic levels. Neither of these conclusions are mutually exclusive. They might easily both be true, and cumulative against persons of color.

Ms. Alexander concludes, correctly in my opinion, that much of the current impetus towards prison reform is to reduce the tax impact on the "(white) middle class.” That is true, in so far as it goes. The middle class, pays more taxes than does the lower economic class.

Alexander quotes professor Derrick A. Bell as calling this an “interest convergence.” The (mostly white) middle class is much more interested in spending less money on prisons than it is in keeping convicts of any color out of prison. They are not the same thing. The views may end up having the same result, but the views are themselves vastly different.

Would a gross reduction in prison population reduce the profits of private prisons? Of course it would. Would it also result in a loss of employment in public prisons? Yes. Do these operations have a vested interest in not letting that happen? Of course they do. That’s politics in the real world. Any expenditure of public funds has politics attached to it.

Will future generations judge us harshly if society does not seek to right what many perceive of as a social wrong if the chance to greatly reduce prison population comes along and we don’t take it? I doubt it. I don’t see any great push to reduce prison population for its own sake, other than by criminals and the families of criminals. Much of the general public, including the tax-paying portion of it, would be happy to keep incarceration rates at their current level if they didn’t have to pay so much for them.

I have personally read a few thousand inmate C-files. Based on that first-hand information I can assure you that pretty much no one except murderers and (now) child molesters goes to prison the first time around. There are plea bargains, treatment (especially for drug users), diversion, jail and probation. You have to work hard to get to prison.

There is, in addition, a good way to stay out of prison. Don’t commit crimes.

Bob Walsh worked for 24 years with the California Department of Corrections at Deuel Vocational Institution located near Tracy, California. He retired in early 2005. Since then he has been taking classes, exercising his obsolete camera equipment, rusticating and writing for the PacoVilla web site which focuses on issues within what is now called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCr) and within the union representing CDCr employees, the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association (CCPOA).

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