How I Avoided Prison Life

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In Where are all the Black Men… in White Coats? I lamented the decades long decline of African-American men entering medical school. In contrast, the United States criminal justice system has done exceedingly well over the same period. Our country incarcerates a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

While African-American men make up 6% of the US population, we constitute 40% of its prison population. One in three African-American men has a felony conviction, and one in three black boys born today will be processed through the criminal justice system at least once in their lifetime. It is a devastatingly efficient system  Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.” This systematic disenfranchisement of a targeted community of men cannot continue.

As an African-American man I never felt the criminal justice system was intended to protect me. It was meant to protect others from people who look like me.  Fortunately, I avoided my life being branded by the system.

Should I attribute this to my obeying the law, hard work, or getting a higher education? Or maybe I am just morally superior to my incarcerated brethren? To be sure these are tempting explanations when needing to separate myself from “them.” The truth, however, is more nuanced, and involved a lot of luck.

Brother A, an alias I am using to respect his privacy, reminded me of this in a letter he sent in the Fall of 2016, a few months after the Dallas Police Shooting. Weeks passed before I opened his initial letter. In fact one or two more letters arrived in the interim.

And to this day I can still count on a typewritten letter from Brother A every few weeks. Never emails or letters generated from a word processor because computers are forbidden. No handwritten letters either because, I assume, pens and pencils are contraband.

All this because Brother A is incarcerated in the California Department of Corrections. The opening paragraph of his initial letter:

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As I prepared this post one year later I read his letter again. And that is when it hit me! Brother A actually quoted me from an NPR interview. I initially overlooked it, but my delayed recognition put his original correspondence in a different context.

To call the realization surreal is an understatement. But it reinforced some personal truths I must never take for granted.

What I learned:

My worldview regarding the criminal justice system was shaped by the experiences of my family, friends, and, of course, the media.  I easily lived by the mantras “well if they would have only done X”, or “if they had not done Y” they would not be in jail. Frequently I added the postscript of “glad it’s not me.”

The truth is obeying the law, working hard, and getting a higher education were not enough. I appreciate that many barriers exist for people of color in this country – and I just got lucky.  I did not grow up segregated in heavily policed neighborhoods, which is a proxy for inequities in jobs, income, education and more. Therefore, my chances of getting getting swept into the criminal justice system were dramatically reduced. Randy Shrewsberry echoes this from his informed perspective as a former police officer in his op-ed I Was A Racist Cop.

For example let’s take a look at Wisconsin which, based on the most recent national census, incarcerates more black men than any other state. In fact, Wisconsin spends more money on prisons than it does on education! Furthermore, in a study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, two-thirds of these incarcerated men come from one-half dozen of the poorest zip codes in Milwaukee – the state’s largest city.

And in contrast to the image of a barbaric, gun-slinging black male, most were put away for drug offenses and non-violent crimes. Once processed in the criminal justice system re-entry into society via jobs, education, and voting rights are severely restricted – if not impossible.

It is simple. For me, living in the right zip code made a tremendous difference.

Your call to action:

Watch Ava Duvernay’s 13th which is available on Netflix.  This award-winning  documentary explores racial inequality and the booming African-American prison population. The segment starting at 1hr 20min in the film was a gut punch for me.

In addition to The New Jim Crow I recommend:

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon – Winner of the Pulitzer Prize his novel details the government-run practice of convict leasing which re-enslaved law-abiding black citizens to serve US industry.

Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform – I have joined a group of like-minded doctors working toward the “creation of  a humane, egalitarian justice system.”

If you think your friends/network would find this post useful, please share it with them. Thank you.

Brian H. Williams, MD