The Sounds of Silence: prisons, race-baiting and the US vote


According to the US Department of Justice Statistics, on June 30, 2007 there were 2,299,116 prisoners incarcerated federally, at the state level and in local jails. That was a little over a year ago and represents .075% of the US population. To do some comparisons: in 1994, this same total was 1, 102, 687 an increase of almost 200% in 14 years. Even accounting for the time it takes to build prisons, this dramatic and rapid increase is alarming. Although Senator Obama supports Americans for Prison Reform, the group has no website and it isn’t clear what impact or goal it has other than a prison-to-work program. In 2006, 4% of all of the allegations of prison sexual misconduct (including abuse, assault and rape) were substantiated. So, not only are we knocking the ball out of the park in terms of locking up our own, we’re also placing them in an unsafe, predatory environment.

In prison, like the outside, sexual misconduct must be ‘substantiated’ to be real. Substantiation depends on freedom to report. Anyone who has spent any time in youth or adult incarceration facilities knows that, in addition to prisoners’ firmly controlling each other’s behavior, prison staff further constrict an inmate’s capacity to substantiate. On top of the allegations of a shocking lack of medical care at US incarceration facilities, including those holding immigrant detainees, it is no wonder that the number of substantiations is so low. If there were 6,528 allegations in 2006 one wonders how many attacks, abuses, assaults and rapes have gone un-reported.

My point is that with 7.5% of the population behind bars, that’s a lot of sexual violence being perpetrated. This points to two huge issues: first, the State is subjecting a huge swath of its people to sexual violence, systemically. Humiliation, embarrassment and self-destruction are three very common responses to sexual assault.  If you wanted to keep a good voter, ugh, person, down you’d subject them to sexual assault.  That’s why rampaging armies do it and it’s why we create a prison environment where assault can flourish.

That said, it’s the second bit I’m connecting to today.  7.5% is a massive number. A whopping 60% of those incarcerated are non-white. So if that many of us are in jail, how come no one on the campaign trail is talking about it?

Most of these prisoners are being held in facilities in rural areas which used to depend on agriculture. Most prisoners come from urban areas. America’s farmers are now its prison guards. Tracy Huling, the author of Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment advises:

The economic restructuring that began in the troubled decade of the 1980s has had dramatic social and economic consequences for rural communities and small towns. Together the farm crises, factory closings, corporate downsizing, shift to service sector employment and the substitution of major regional and national chains for local, main-street businesses have triggered profound change in these areas. The acquisition of prisons as a conscious economic development strategy for depressed rural communities and small towns in the United States has become widespread. Hundreds of small rural towns and several whole regions have become dependent on an industry which itself is dependent on the continuation of crime-producing conditions (

Let’s face it if you’ve got a choice between a state job working in the prison system and Wal-Mart, even if you’re a Republican, you’re going to choose the state job. And now, to bring the silence home, just where is Sarah Palin holding her rallies? New York City? Not exactly. And who is Barack Obama working hardest to win over? Middle-aged white, rural, voters. Racism is too easy an answer for what is happening at McCain/Palin rallies.  Besides, as anyone who’s grown up in a race-divided country will tell you, at its core, racism is always about money. Follow it.

Not the smokescreen of race-baiting. While these numbers represent and describe a relentless fear of non-whites – they also describe economic self-interest. Who does it benefit to constantly use “law and order” and prisons to solve social problems? It benefits those who are displaced by a changing economy: the rural poor, near poor and middle-class. The very people who depend on the prison industry, the military bases and the defense industry. The very people whose mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are walking the halls of our prisons and getting the credit for cringing from IEDs in Iraq.  The very people who, historically, show up at the polls on election day.

And besides, those nasty criminals deserve just what they get, don’t they?

Politicians understand what’s at stake. Is it any wonder that in places where super-prisons thrive and local economies depend upon incarceration that Sarah Palin is able to incite hate and fear?

What if after almost two decades of steadily increasing incarceration to, among other things, disenfranchise non-whites, the US might actually move towards a federal government of what we aspire to be.  Yet, yet. Sssh.

There is silence from the campaign trail.

~ by Thom on October 20, 2008.

5 Responses to “The Sounds of Silence: prisons, race-baiting and the US vote”

    ‘Thanks for your site” the above is my take on the subject so far as I’ve been able to work on it.
    I think people get into jail because they inncorecctly believe that they are FREE. No one is free. There is always going to be some one who wants to rule the world.

  2. You got it. Thanks for reading. Yes, yes. That word “free”. much peace

  3. […] talkinblog wrote very interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt […]

  4. […] talkinblog wrote quite interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt […]

  5. […] but never ourselves (human rights). My goodness, 10% of the US population is incarcerated (see “The Sounds of Silence”) but our media throws its full weight behind the incarceration of a journalist in Iran. Five states […]

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