Racial inequality a prominent issue in US prisons
By Li Zhiwei
People's Daily app

The US has been widely condemned for its long-term and systemic racism against ethnic minority groups and immigrants in its justice system.

File photo

While people of color make up 37 percent of the US population, they account for 67 percent of the country’s prison population.

The incidence of human rights violations is particularly high in immigrant detention centers along the US borders.

Data suggests that during the 2021 fiscal year, the US government detained as many as 1.7 million illegal immigrants, of which 80 percent were held in private detention facilities with harsh conditions, including a large number of immigrant children.

Among the 266,000 immigrant children detained by the US in recent years, more than 25,000 have been held for over 100 days.

“There were nearly 5,000 children there (‘emergency intake’ shelter erected in the harsh desert of Fort Bliss), and some 1,500 children are still being held at the troubled site, where conditions in ‘jam-packed’ tents resembled ‘a stockyard,’ were ‘traumatizing’ and risky for the children’s health and safety,” reported the El Paso Times.

Between April and June 2018, the Trump administration implemented a “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration at the US-Mexico border.

Under the policy, adult illegal immigrants were prosecuted by the US government and held in federal prisons or deported, and their children were in the care of the US Department of Health and Human Services. A huge number of immigrant children were forced to separate from their parents.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an American nonprofit organization committed to advocacy for civil rights and racial equality, a total of 4,368 children were separated from their parents or guardians because of this policy, and many still hadn’t found their parents by the end of 2020.

According to over 160 internal reports of the US government, US border officials have committed plenty of misconduct and abuse against immigrants, including verbal, physical and even sexual abuse, pointed out a report released by international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) last October.

There are also allegations of harsh detention conditions, denial of medical care, and other phenomena at the border, according to the report.

“...human rights abuses run rampant in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. Intentional deprivation (e.g. being kept in a cold room without a blanket or being served rotten food), physical and verbal abuse by guards, sexual assault, and rape happen far too frequently...In fact, an independent medical review of deaths in detention found that in over half of the deaths analyzed, medical negligence had played a role,” said an article by Eillen Martinez and two other American scholars, which was recently published on Medpage Today, a web-based medical news service provider.

Statistics show that in the US, African Americans are six times more likely than white people to be incarcerated in prisons. One of every three African-American males born in the US can expect to go to prison at least once in his lifetime, compared to one of every 17 white males.

According to the National Public Radio (NPR), Black Americans are four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession; and black men spend an average of 20 percent longer behind bars in federal prisons than their white peers for the same crimes.

An article published on the website of Forbes Magazine pointed out that prisoners of African descent are the most likely to suffer from abuse by prison staff among all inmates, which makes them more subject to psychological trauma and more discriminated against when they reenter society.

Private prisons in the US have a significantly higher proportion of inmates of color and more evident racial inequality. Low-income groups, mostly people of color, are likely to be detained because they cannot afford bail and are eventually pressured into pleading guilty. They usually cannot meet the harsh requirements attached to fines or probation, and end up becoming long-term cheap labor in private prisons.

Racial inequality in American prisons, especially in private prisons, is the epitome of the country’s long-standing systemic racism.

The US has a dark history of exploiting the lives of disadvantaged groups (usually people of color) for the profit of the powerful--from colonial slavery through coolie labor, black codes, and Jim Crow laws, the government has sanctioned this practice, pointed out US non-profit organization Abolish Private Prisons, which believes that “Locking people up for profit is simply the latest incarnation of slavery.”

A non-profit, non-partisan think tank Interrogating Justice noted that private prisons in the US are the product of a symbiotic relationship between police departments, court systems, transportation companies, food suppliers, and other departments and businesses, all of which benefit from mass incarceration. Some believe that the US private prison industry is deeply rooted in slavery and has, some argue, modernized state-sponsored slave labor.

American writer Jabari Asim believes that the idea that African Americans can commit a crime simply by existing is more than just a deeply entrenched racist misconception; it is also an idea rooted in capitalism’s need for a cheap, exploitable labor force. Asim noted, private prisons are specifically designed so that states can profit from the nearly free labor provided by incarcerated people.