A Victory in the Fight Against Mass Incarceration

Activists in the Valley who are working to end mass incarceration might be inspired by a story from Oakland, California. In December 2014, in Oakland, anti-prison activists held a rally outside a meeting of the county legislature. They were asking the Alameda county board of supervisors to invest $17 million a year in programs to keep people out of prison by creating jobs for people just getting out of prison. (People who have been in prison are far more likely return to prison when they are released than people who have never been incarcerated, largely because of difficulty finding work.)

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Darris Young

photo by Ella Baker Center

The board rejected the activists' request. The activists kept returning to the board's meetings and speaking out during the public comment period. But the board kept rejecting their request. On March 4, 2015, the activists returned to a county board meeting. This time they were ready to get arrested for non-violent civil disobedience. They interrupted the meeting by singing songs from the civil rights movement. The board quickly ended the meeting. Soon, the activists won. They got the $17 million.

Darris Young was the main organizer of the protests at the Alameda county board of supervisors meeting. He was a prisoner in California in 2008. While he was in prison, he organized a strike by the prisoners. They refused to do their jobs until they got more recreation time. They won. Now he is out of prison. He works for the Ella Baker Center as a community organizer. He recently spoke with Valley Post. “It was a beautiful sight,” Young said of the rally. “As a nation, we need more rallies and community involvement, including civil disobedience if we are going to reduce the prison population.”

No major nation incarcerates such a high percentage of its people. As of 2008, the USA had about 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. "England's rate is 151; Germany's is 88; and Japan's is 63." That's according to "U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations," an article by Adam Liptak that appeared in the New York Times on April 23, 2008. Those numbers were virtually unchanged as of 2013.

In the USA, African American and Latino people are far more likely to be in prison than white people. The book "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond explains why the average black person is much poorer than the average white person. Rich people can afford better lawyers.

The vast majority of the 2.2 million people in prison in the USA were poor when they were arrested. The vast majority – 93 percent – of people in prison in the USA are men.

The Valley Post asked a sociology professor at a university in Pennsylvania why so many more men than women are in prison. The professor asked not to be identified because his response was “off the cuff.” He wrote via e-mail, “Most crimes are economically based and men are still expected to be breadwinners/providers. Men are socialized/rewarded to be violent. Men are also expected to dominate/ be in control.” The U.S. military's 1.4 million active duty personnel are trained to be violent; 85 percent of them are men. With 5 percent of the world's population, the USA spends more on the military than every other nation combined.

While the chances of dramatically reducing the USA's prison population and military budget may seem small, in 1989, the chances of Nelson Mandela -- who was then seven years into a life sentence in prison -- becoming president of South Africa were also small. In 1994, Mandela was elected president and one of the world’s most brutal and racist governments was overthrown.

In the United States, 150 years ago, ending slavery and granting women the right to vote both seemed unlikely. Mass movements of ordinary people won justice.

Comments

AMERICANS MOVING IN A MORE POSITIVE DIRECTION

This is good stuff!! This is a really important issue being raised! I love how VT pushes restitution. I believe that is very important. Private prisons are not the answer. Thank you for writing this. There certainly is an uprising in our country! We seem to be pushing in a more positive direction!

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