Black Prison Gulag and the Police State

The United States has passed an historic and symbolic watershed in its unrelenting, two generations-long quest to incarcerate as many Blacks as humanly possible. As of January 1, more than one of every 100 adults is behind bars, about half of them Black. That’s not counting Afro-Latinos and other Hispanics. The U.S. is the unchallenged leader in mass incarceration, with the largest Gulag on the planet, based on raw numbers of inmates – 2,319,258 in federal and state prisons and local jails – and per capita incarceration: 750 inmates for every 100,000 people. Russia, which led the world back in Soviet times, is number two, with 628 inmates per 100,000. The Black and brown U.S. prisoner population, alone, roughly equals that of China’s – a nation with four times the population of the U.S.

Russia’s imprisonment practices grew out of the Tsarist Siberian and later, Stalinist model. America’s model is directly derived from slavery – the virtual imprisonment of an entire people. From the post-Emancipation “Black Codes” through the 1960s, Blacks have always been locked up in vastly disproportionate numbers. Still, white inmates were in the majority until at least 1964. Then, beginning in the early 70s, the prison population exploded, multiplying seven times. By 1996, African Americans comprised 53 percent of all persons admitted to state and federal prisons. One out of nine Black males between the ages of 20 and 34 now resides behind bars, compared to just one of every 30 whites.

The debate over U.S. prison growth and wildly disparate Black incarceration – to the extent there is a debate – usually centers on draconian and racially-engineered drug sentences. That’s descriptive of one modality of prison growth, addressing the “how” of the problem, but doesn’t address the “why” of it, the political intentions of massive imprisonment of African Americans.

Countless studies have shown beyond statistical doubt that the U.S. “justice” system is stacked against African Americans at every stage of the process: hyper-surveillance of Black neighborhoods, leading to disproportionate arrests, a nationwide pattern of prosecutorial fervor to charge Blacks with more serious crimes than white defendants, harsher sentences once convicted, and far fewer opportunities for Blacks to avoid hard time through “diversion” programs that are skewed to allowing far more whites to escape long term stints in prison. Once again, these factors explain how Blacks have become majorities in prison, even in states and localities with relatively small Black populations, but do not address why Black mass incarceration began to accelerate at breakneck speed in the early 70s, and continues no matter whether crime is up or down.

“Mass Black incarceration,” I wrote in February, 2007,” is America’s answer to the Black Freedom Movement of the Sixties and early Seventies.” Just as the “Black Codes” were the white South’s response to Emancipation, and as massive incarceration of Black “loiterers” to prison plantations and chain gangs followed the crushing of Reconstruction, whites got revenge against the Black Freedom Movement of the Sixties by throwing as many as possible African Americans in prison. This “nigger-caging” response was near-uniform across the country – North, South, East and West. It is the Mother of All White Backlashes – no, the Grandmother, showing no signs of diminishing in racist fury after more than 30 years.

“Reform” measures are surely needed, such as elimination of mandatory sentencing, broader application of prison “diversion” programs, abolition of racist crack cocaine super-sentences, a requirement that “racial impact” studies be instituted at all prisons and jails, repeal of state laws depriving convicted felons of the right to vote, and many other proposals. However, if mass Black incarceration, the “engine” of prison growth, is not understood as an ongoing, institutionalized crime whose purpose is wholly racial, the discussion will be limited to reformers who attempt to tinker around the edges of the historical catastrophe and Black clergy who think they can preach successive Black generations out of going to prison.

It is as if Nazis could be convinced to “rehabilitate” Jews rather than kill them. The whole purpose of the death camp was to kill Jews. The purpose of U.S. prisons is to socially erase masses of Blacks, to subject them to social death. The demonic project has mutilated two generations of African American youth, and damaged Black America to its very core – just as was planned when masses of whites were traumatized in the 60s at the nightmare sight of Black men, women and youth standing tall, demanding full rights and recognition of their humanity. OK, you can be human, if you insist, the mass incarcerators conceded, but it will have to be behind bars.

To effectively battle a system, one must understand its nature. Those states that are attempting to slow or halt the growth of their prisons are doing so only because mass incarceration is becoming too expensive for public coffers to sustain, including the explosive growth of private prisons. But the nature and purpose of the beast goes largely unchallenged.

Mass Equal Opportunity Lockups

The Pew Center on the States report on prisons was released one day after an ABC News story on the FBI’s listing of nearly a million persons as “terrorist threats.” The ACLU extrapolated the figure from the Department of Justice Inspector General’s statement, last September, that FBI watch list then stood at 700,000 names, and growing at 20,000 names per month.

Again, one must understand the nature of the beast. To believe that the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center possess a lists of 900,000 genuine “terror suspects,” by name or alias, is absurd. ABC concluded that “it appears the FBI may be adding tens of thousands of names belonging to U.S. persons it suspects of being domestic terrorists — people who have no known ties to international terrorist organizations.” No doubt the feds have many hundreds of thousands of “names,” but it is impossible to accept that the U.S. government has identified almost a million people with actual ties to real terrorism, domestically or worldwide. There aren’t that many on the planet, much less in U.S. “sleeper” cells. The domestic names are clearly a list of people to be picked up. These “action lists” are of people to be arrested when politically possible, whose politics is deemed suspect by the regime in power.

Will a Democratic administration order the lists destroyed? Not likely. Reacting to the FBI’s arrest of a group of Black Miami men for plotting to blow up the Sears Tower, in Chicago, Barack Obama said:

The men and women of the FBI have done a great job infiltrating and taking down this home-grown terrorist cell. But this is a stark reminder that landmarks in our nation’s great cities, like the Sears Tower in Chicago, remain tempting targets for terrorists and would-be terrorists.

The Liberty City Seven trial ended in a mistrial and one acquittal, broadly viewed as a farcical, Keystone FBI attempt at entrapping impoverished African American men who had no capacity to plan or carry out such an attack.

Those who ask only that the federal government shorten its purely political lists of “terror” suspects – actually, all the names of progressives they can get their hands on, for convenient mass arrest – refuse to acknowledge the nature of the beast.

The police state that has long existed in Black America may one day soon extend well beyond racial borders.

Glen Ford is Executive Editor of Black Agenda Report, where this article first appeared. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Glen, or visit Glen's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. hp said on March 6th, 2008 at 10:01am #

    Real soon the hiways and streets of our cities and towns will be patrolled by the returning veterans of the latest neocon wars for hate and profit.
    The same returning veterans will be manning the local and county jails and the prisons, both state and federal. The color barrier will become a thing of the past. You know, “subversives all look alike.”
    Makes you feel real safe. Warm and fuzzy all over, don’t it?

  2. Hue Longer said on March 6th, 2008 at 1:33pm #

    why hp, were they shooting white folks in Iraq?

  3. hp said on March 6th, 2008 at 8:31pm #

    They couldn’t find any so they turned their attention to puppies and the like.

  4. hp said on March 6th, 2008 at 8:50pm #

    I’m not by any means saying they are all psychopaths/sociopaths. Just a whole bunch of them. You know exactly what I mean. Where else are they going to work? Looked for a job lately?
    The fastest and only growing industries are prisons and hospitals.
    I think we’ve already seen a few of them on TV.

  5. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 7th, 2008 at 9:59am #

    After a slight bout with demoralization due to Obama’s “victories,” GLEN FORD LIVES!!!

  6. dan e said on March 8th, 2008 at 4:08pm #

    Yeah, Lloyd, right on. Check out this lady, right here in Sactomato:

  7. Charles said on June 21st, 2009 at 7:32pm #

    Re:Black Men in America’s Jails and Prisons

    Too many young black men continue to waste their precious lives in a state of neo bondage. As a correctional educator for the past several years, I can tell you that the prisons and jails in this great country are overflowing with young African-Americans (You already know). All of my students are young black men – one exception. As a teacher, it saddens me to see the talent that is wasted on a daily basis.

    We all need to start doing more to address this escalating dilemma. The youth of this country don’t need to rot in jail, while we (Americans) ignore the problem. Something is causing this horrible trend to continue. You may ask yourself ”What can I do?”. There is no easy answer, but you need to do something. A few suggestions would be:

    organize sports functions (basketball leagues, football leagues, etc.)
    talk to kids at school
    write books
    contact government officials
    do volunteer work
    tutor kids
    take kids fishing, camping, etc.

    The point here is to start doing something. If we simply ignore the problem, where do you think we will be in 10 years pertaining to this issue?

    For my part, I have written a book aimed at helping young black men who are already incarcerated.

    The book is called:
    Black Choices, A young black man’s guide to prison survival

    ISBN: 1-60813-727-9, 83 pages, 6 x 9,
    The book can be ordered through or by calling 301/695-1707
    This book can make a real difference to the young man who is incarcerated. It can help him to negotiate prison life more successfully and also start planning for what life brings after prison is over. If you have a loved one or friend in jail, consider sending him this most important book. I believe it will help his life to start getting back on the road to a more successful future. Any help getting the word out about this book will be greatly appreciated. I truly care about my students and the overall plight of too many young black men in America’s correctional centers.