"Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings."
Kim Kardashian has released the trailer for her forthcoming documentary, Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project.
It will follow her efforts to defend incarcerated people, which began back in 2018 when she fought to free Alice Marie Johnson, a black woman serving a life sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug charge.
The official trailer for my new documentary is here! Criminal justice reform is something that’s so important to me… https://t.co/rhJ1gXdeHz— Kim Kardashian West (@Kim Kardashian West) 1579407313.0
Since then, Kardashian announced her decision to pursue a law degree, and she is currently working with the Decarceration Collective to help more incarcerated people exit the prison system. The documentary will follow her journey to this point.
Apparently, her relationship with Kanye West and her four biracial children have something to do with her newfound passion for criminal justice. "I'm raising four black children that could face a situation like any of the people that I help," the reality TV star told the Television Critics Association. "Just to know I can make a difference in my children's lives and (others) by helping fix a broken system, that's so motivating for me."
Kardashian West's fears are well-founded. "There is a mass incarceration problem in the United States," Kim says in the trailer for her documentary.
It's true, to say the least. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, America comprises 5% of the world's population but holds 25% of its incarcerated population. Even more tellingly, there were only 200,000 people incarcerated in the United States in 1972, but today there are roughly 2.2 million people behind bars.
These statistics are shocking, but it's almost impossible to comprehend what they actually mean. Behind each one of these numbers, there is a human being trapped behind bars, suffering as a cog in a system that breeds corruption, violence, and abuse.
Jay-Z and the Effort to Hold Prisons Accountable for Their Terrible Conditions
Whether or not you think jails should exist at all, the truth about what goes on in prisons should be enough to stun anyone with a grain of humanity in their body.
On January 16, rapper and billionaire Jay-Z and the rapper Yo Gotti filed a lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections on behalf of 30 prisoners at Mississippi's Parchman Prison, who claimed they were being subjected to "inhumane, violent and unconstitutional conditions" that resulted in the deaths of five people over two weeks.
"Plaintiffs' lives are in peril," reads the lawsuit. "Individuals held in Mississippi's prisons are dying because Mississippi has failed to fund its prisons, resulting in prisons where violence reigns because prisons are understaffed. In the past two weeks alone, five men incarcerated in Mississippi have died as the result of prison violence. These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi's utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights."
It adds that the prisons "are plagued with violence" and inmates "live in squalor, endangering their physical and mental health."
At Parchman, inmates often don't have access to beds, and prison "units are subject to flooding" while "black mold festers," continues the lawsuit. "Rats and mice infest the prison. Units lack running water and electricity for days at a time."
On Friday, Jay-Z and Yo Gotti's teams will rally in Jackson, Mississippi, according to their philanthropy organization Team Roc. The demonstration is scheduled for Friday at 11am.
The Carceral Industry and Michelle Alexander's New Jim Crow
Why, exactly, are there so many people in prison? What does the American justice system have to gain from imprisoning so many people?
In part, imprisonment is a way of maintaining control and preserving pre-existing power structures. There's a reason why 70% of female prison inmates and 60% of male inmates suffer from some form of mental illness, according to one study by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings," said Civil Rights activist Angela Davis. "Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages."
The deeper truth is that American prisons today are used as punishment systems for poor people and people of color. More than 70% of prisoners are estimated to be people of color; The Sentencing Project estimates that 1 in 3 black men will do time during their lives, compared with 1 in 17 white men, and Black Americans are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared to white Americans accused of the same crime.
"If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life," writes Michelle Alexander, who argues that the prison industrial complex has become the New Jim Crow—America's way of ensuring that Black people remain in the lower echelons of society.
"These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status," she writes. "They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era."
She notes that although it would be easy to blame a spike in crime on all the increase in incarceration, crime is actually at a historical low. Poverty and economic inequality, however, are spiking, and so is the number of people incarcerated in American jails—by a truly staggering amount.
These prisons have a lot in common with slavery. "In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, abolishing slavery," writes Gina M. Florio for Bustle. "There was a significant loophole in the Amendment, though: It stated that slavery and involuntary servitude are illegal, "except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."
As Whitney Benns writes in The Atlantic, "Slavery never ended at Angola; it was reinvented." Incarcerated workers receive few benefits and are not recognized as legal persons in that they do not receive the right to vote or the right to move freely; they are dehumanized, condemned, and they are—critically—forced to work for huge corporations.
The Prison Industrial Complex
The sudden rise in incarceration in America over the past forty years can be attributed to what's known as the "prison industrial complex." In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes, "[A] growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It's hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible."
In essence, prisons are making money off prisoners' cheap and free labor and increasing their profits by stripping inmates of resources and welfare. In order to fulfill government quotas and continue to create the profit that drives this system, prisons need to arrest and imprison more and more people while spending less and less money.
Thanks to aggressive organizations like the Corrections Corp of America, the prison industry is a $70 billion profit machine. These corporations and their investors push for more severe sentences, while fighting against efforts that would lower the number of people in prison, such as marijuana decriminalization laws.
In addition, prisons profit from crackdowns on immigration, and many believe that carceral corporations have long worked in tandem with government officials to engineer waves of immigration and subsequent crackdowns.
"The immigration industrial complex is the confluence of public and private sector interests in the criminalization of undocumented migration, immigration law enforcement, and the promotion of "anti-illegal" rhetoric," writes professor Tanya Golash-Boza in a paper called "The Immigration Industrial Complex: Why We Enforce Immigration Policies Destined to Fail."
"Under the pretext of being tough on crime, state governments can fatten their coffers and fill the jail cells of their corporate benefactors," writes John W. Whitehead for The Huffington Post. "However, while a flourishing privatized prison system is a financial windfall for corporate investors, it bodes ill for any measures aimed at reforming prisoners and reducing crime."
According to Nelson Mandela, "It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones." What might the state of American prisons tell us about our nation?
Thankfully, people like Kim Kardashian West and Jay-Z are shedding light on some of these issues, but even these powerful, wealthy celebrities can't do much more than scratch the surface of a problem entrenched in centuries of American tradition.
Still, every little bit helps. To resist aiding the prison industrial complex, you can avoid calling the cops on people who might be in danger from a police presence; you can learn about alternatives to calling the police; you can boycott organizations that make money off of prisons (like Starbucks, Aramark, and Victoria's Secret); you can volunteer at a local prison; you can be like Kanye West and donate to prison reform organizations; you can attend protests like Jay-Z's on Friday; you can join a prison abolition organizing group; you can vote for politicians that support anti-carceral policies; and you can learn about local and national prison issues and contact your congressperson to fight for what you believe in.
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