Prisoners, mass incarceration and freedom

by Valerie Haynes

Who are prisoners?

A prisoner can be someone’s father, grandfather, mother, brother, sister or child. It could be you – though you’re more likely to be a prisoner if you’re Black, another person of color, or poor. Under the 13th Amendment, if you’re a prisoner in the U.S., you’re a slave – which is against international law because slavery has long been outlawed worldwide.

Why are so many Blacks and others of color in U.S. prisons?

There were very few Blacks in prison when we were slaves. That’s because the majority of Black men, women and children were already imprisoned on plantations at the time as slaves for life.

Now that we’re supposedly free, Blacks have become the majority of the U.S. prison population. And that is because the free labor of Black slaves built this country into a profitable, prosperous enterprise for whites who are trying to keep it that way.

The Civil War ended slavery and replaced it with segregation, but slavery’s racist, imperialist core still drives U.S. ambitions today. Thus, at slavery’s end we see white slave patrols morph into a white police force, and segregation’s laws, Black Codes, white judges, juries and police force morph into a rudimentary criminal in-justice system.

Blacks began to be arrested for everything, from refusing to sign slave-like work contracts to looking the wrong way at some white man. Black prison rates shot up from 0 to 33 percent. Most arrests were due to sundry attempts to force Blacks to work for free (slavery) or for nearly free (servitude) and always at cheaper wages than whites, who were the main beneficiaries of cheaper Black labor.

This meant higher white profits. So, the reason so many Blacks are in prison is ultimately due to their resistance, in one way or another, to being re-enslaved – at which point the real criminal is brought into the dispute and the innocent Black is shipped off to prison.

Segregation and civil rights       

The Civil Rights Movement (CRM), along with the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, defeated legal (de jure) segregation when the 1954 Supreme Court outlawed school segregation. Though the actual practice of (de facto) segregation continued, the ruling did open the door to attacks on segregation in general.

Enter Rosa Parks, MLK Jr., SCLC and the Montgomery Bus Boycott into the CRM, which ran strong, broke much ground, won many victories, suffered its share of setbacks and was eventually eclipsed by the Black Liberation Movement (BLM) in the latter half of the 1960s.

Now that we’re supposedly free, Blacks have become the majority of the U.S. prison population. And that is because the free labor of Black slaves built this country into a profitable, prosperous enterprise for whites who are trying to keep it that way.

The BLM and ‘serving the people’

The Black Liberation Movement: Black Panthers Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Lumumba Shakur, Sekou Odinga; Assata, Afeni, Mutulu (RNA) and Zayd Shakur; Sundiata Acoli. Plus the various contributing movements: Puerto Rican (FLN), American Indian Movement (AIM), Weather Underground Organization (WUO, a white anti-imperialist group), Chicano Liberation Front, and I WOR KUEN, an Asian group.

The Panthers were about “Serving the People: Free Breakfast for School Children,” helping people solve their day to day problems and fighting for control of the institutions in their communities, like schools, hospitals and medical clinics. The Panthers had very good community support, particularly among the youth, other people of color, other liberation movements, progressives, the poor and other oppressed who wanted liberation.

COINTELPRO defeats the BLM

In response to the BLM’s growing support in the community and solidarity with other liberation movements, the U.S. government launched a Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) against the Panthers and defeated them. The Nation of Islam was attacked by COINTELPRO and survived. Other domestic liberation groups were attacked; some survived, some didn’t. Others just melted away. Some of today’s aged prisoners are among those who fell during COINTELPRO’s attack on the BLM in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Crack and the mass prison-building spree     

The defeat of the BLM was followed immediately by the flooding of communities of color with more drugs: heroin, cocaine and the new drug of the Reagan era – crack. While inundating urban Black and Brown centers with crack, the government was quietly conducting mass prison-building sprees in white rural mountainous and other remote areas to provide jobs for local citizens and cells for the coming prisoners of the “crack scourge.”

War on Blacks and mass incarceration

Then came the “War on Blacks,” others of color and the poor disguised as the “War on Drugs,” or “War on Crime.” Strategies included the 100-to-1 “crack” cocaine (associated mostly with Blacks) vs. “powder” cocaine (associated mostly with whites) sentencing disparity; no more parole (one had to complete 85 percent of a sentence); Bill Clinton’s 50 new “Tough on Crime” death penalty offenses; “three strikes” life sentence for stealing a candy bar; life without parole (LWOP) sentence for “acquitted conduct,” where the jury acquits the defendant but the judge overrules and sentences “acquitted” defendant to LWOP anyway.

The Black community was targeted for constant patrols, higher arrest quotas, zero-tolerance crime enforcement, disproportionate stop and frisk and shoot and kill, harsher charges filed, higher bonds set, longer sentences given out, more paroles denied or revoked – more prison for Blacks than whites.

Equalizing crack and powder cocaine sentences

Colleagues of Congressional Black Congresswoman (CBC) Maxine Waters admitted to her that the current drug laws were often excessively unfair when applied to Blacks, others of color, poor and oppressed. Other CBC colleagues pled with the organization to bear with them until they could pass adequate sentence reduction laws. Congress passed laws that reduced sentences and freed large-scale marijuana growers and methamphetamine manufacturers (crimes usually associated with whites) as people of color patiently waited year after year for the 100-to-1 crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity to be equalized.

Finally came the day! C-Span televised the congressional debate for equalizing crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences. It never happened! Crack was only reduced to an 18-to-1 ratio to powder, though cocaine is the only active drug in either crack or powder cocaine. Even the 18-to-1 sentencing disparity was not made retroactive to those with prior convictions.

People of color felt betrayed by Congress. Prisons erupted in riots. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) instantly shut down C-Span and locked down the prisons that flared up. Today the 18-to-1 disparity remains, as does the racist overkill tactics of the Criminal Injustice System against Black and Brown communities in particular and the poor in general.

Where do we go from here?

Our Black families, communities of color and poor people have been torn asunder by one racist scheme after another to keep Blacks and other oppressed in subservient roles for the benefit of an imperialistic white supremacist system.

Sundiata Acoli, Kevin Jones-Bey (16)

Sundiata Acoli

Quite simply: We want our imprisoned parents, grandparents, teachers, leaders, brothers, sisters, political prisoners, exiles, students and children freed and exonerated to help rebuild our families, communities, lives and Black Nation now, not at some vague future date that will allow most of our loved ones to slowly die off in prison – as is the case with 82-year-old Black Panther political prisoner Sundiata Acoli, held at FCI Cumberland, Maryland. (His full address is Sundiata Acoli (Squire), 39794-066, FCI Cumberland, P.O. Box 1000, Cumberland MD 20501; please write. – ed.)

Kevin Jones-Bey

Or: the case of Kevin Jones-Bey, who’s doing LWOP for an “acquitted conduct” sentence. Along with Sundiata Acoli, Kevin Jones-Bey is a brilliant co-teacher of the Critical Thinking course that is tasked, inter alia, with teaching younger prisoners to control their emotions in critical situations so that they think and act rationally to avoid the revolving door recidivism (like parole violations) that return so many young parolees to prison. (Kevin’s address is the same as Sundiata’s, except his number is 32567-037.)

Tony Lewis Sr.

Or: the case of Tony Lewis Sr., former kingpin, doing LWOP, who deliberately steered his son, Tony Lewis Jr., nicknamed “Slugg,” away from drugs and crime and toward the best schools and love of self, family, community and people – but taught him never to forget where he came from. Tony Lewis Jr. did not disappoint, going on to write an inspiring double biography of father and son, “Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”

He heeded his father’s caution not to glamorize drugs or street life but to save Black lives and inspire Black men to be better than they are – and he did indeed! Tony Lewis Jr. is now a member of the Washington, D.C., City Council, serving and representing his people well and moving on up the ladder.

We want freedom

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” – Assata Shakur

Valerie Haynes, who can be reached at Valerie_Haynes@Hotmail.com, describes herself as a “Black woman, mother, community organizer, activist from Brooklyn, New York. I’ve been organizing with and advocating for u.s. held Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War since 2010.

“I joined the Sekou Odinga Defense Committee (SODC) in 2013 and when Sekou came home, he co-founded, with other former PPs/POWs, activists, organizations, the North East Political Prisoner Coalition (NEPPC). I’ve been with NEPPC since 2015. We educate the masses on the existence of u.s. held PPs and POWs, particularly focusing on the forgotten ones from the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army movement of the 1960s. We share their stories so we can change and correct the narrative on our history of Black Resistance while the powers that be continue to criminalize Black Resistance. FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS! FREE ’EM ALL!

Our 11 Black Panther or BLA PPs/POWs are:

  • Sundiata Acoli, 82
  • Russell Maroon Shoatz, 75
  • Imam Jamil Al Amin, 75
  • Ed Poindexter, 74
  • Veronza Bowers, 73
  • Ruchell Magee, 72
  • Romaine Chip Fitzgerald, 70
  • Dr. Mutulu Shakur, 68
  • Jalil Muntaqim, 67
  • Kamau Sadiki, 67
  • Mumia Abu-Jamal, 65

Learn more at www.northeastpoliticalprisonercoalition.wordpress.com.