The Crime of Being Poor: Class and Criminal Justice in America

A U.S. prisoner named Paul Wright has penned an extraordinary essay on the role of class in the American criminal justice system.
24 May 2010

Taken from the opening of "The Crime of Being Poor," by Paul Wright, an American prisoner. (Prison Legal News, 24.05.10)

A central part of the mythology of the criminal justice system in the United States is that everyone is treated equally, regardless of his or her race or class. The concept that no one is above the law is a noble one. Like many good ideas, reality usually lags far behind the rhetoric.

Recent years have seen a growing criticism of the criminal justice system on the flawed premise that that the system itself is racist. Proponents of this position support their argument by pointing to statistics that show that black men make up 6% of the national population but almost half of the nation's prison population. Or that at any given time one third of the U.S. population of black men is under criminal justice control, either in prison, jail, probation or parole. (See David Cole's No Equal Justice for a detailed overview of this position.) The end result: a stunning and disproportionately large percentage of black men under criminal justice control, is taken as prima facie evidence that the very system is inherently racist, at least in its outcome.

No one, it seems, is willing to discuss the role that class plays in determining who does and does not go to prison. If the law prohibits rich and poor alike from stealing bread, and both steal bread, how come only the poor go to prison for doing so? The proponents of the institutional racism theory do not claim that rich blacks and Latinos are being herded into prison and jail in vast numbers, because they are not. And what about the whites in prison? Do they count for nothing? White prisoners tend to share one thing with their black and Hispanic compatriots: poverty. Most prisoners report incomes of less than $8,000 a year in the year prior to coming to prison. A majority were unemployed at the time of their arrest. Tellingly, in a society that measures everything, no government statistics are kept on pre incarceration earnings and employment histories. Few researchers seem interested in proving the obvious. [For more on this topic, see Crime and Punishment in America: Why the Solutions to America's Most Stubborn Social Crisis Have not Worked and What Will, by Elliott Curry.]

To answer the question of who goes to prison and why, we must first ask what are prisons for. Some activists mistakenly claim, "prisons don't work." Before we can answer that question, we must first determine what are prisons for? First and foremost, they are tools of social control, a means by which political and economic elites can maintain and enhance their position of dominance over the lower and working classes. The $147 billion a year criminal justice system of police, prosecutors, courts and prisons is to domestic U.S. policy what the military and NATO is to U.S. foreign policy: a means of maintaining the political and economic status quo and crushing any challenges to the current state of affairs. That there is no organized domestic political opposition at this time is immaterial.

If the purpose of prisons is to be a tool of social control to dominate and oversee the poor and working classes who might with political consciousness and organization, pose a threat to the status quo, then the institution of prison is a resounding success. That it can trace its origins and growth to the rise of slavery further supports this. It also explains the absence of rich people, of all races, behind bars. It also explains the reticence of virtually all pundits, academics and even activists to discuss the dirty secret of American politics: class.

Class in the U.S. is almost a forbidden topic. Raise the issue in any context, whether it is tax policy, campaign finance, government subsidies to corporations and criminal justice, and the speaker is quickly dismissed as a lunatic or worse, of fomenting "class war." Never mind that class war is already being waged on the poor and the criminal justice system is the primary weapon in this war. Class looms like a hippopotamus in a swimming pool where all the dinner guests are too polite to mention its existence.

Source: Prison Legal News


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