In the previous 100 years, there was indiscriminate incarceration of individuals. During that time, the United States had the highest incarceration rates in the world. Close to 3 million individuals were residents of the penitentiary system compared to the country’s population of 325 million people. It is a pity that during this time most of the convicts were non-violent offenders. One in five inmates was convicted on a non-violent drug charge (Wagner and Rabuy). The system of excessive punishment all but succeeded in overloading the prisons with inmates on flimsy charges. Most of the convicts of these non-violent crimes were mainly guilty on drug possession charges (Wagner and Rabuy). These drugs ranged from heroin to cocaine. It is astounding that most of these drug possession charges were due to marijuana which has long been decriminalized.
The unfairness in the justice system went beyond these flimsy crimes. The unfairness was a mix of outdated laws and racism in the judicial system. Many convicted felons on possession charges were mainly African Americans. It was a dark period to be black. There was a higher likelihood of black persons being arrested on drug possession charges especially marijuana. During that dark era, Africans Americans formed 30 percent of the prison population despite being a minority group. They were five times more likely to be arrested compared to whites (NAACP).
The turn of the 21st Century had the USA government amp up its war on drugs. Cocaine in its crack form had pervaded through the cities in the 1980s and 1990s. The United States had become the drug frontier minting ‘billionaires’. Due to the social inequalities present at the time, the effect of drugs was mainly felt in the low-income neighborhoods (Savali). The racial bias present at the time predisposed the minority communities, blacks and Latino, to economic deprivation. As the war on drugs continued, the drug problem especially the violent crime linked to it became associated with the minorities. Due to the lower social station of the minorities, police meted out violence in these neighborhoods without fear of repercussions. The racial minorities had become stereotyped as criminals. It was a common occurrence for police officers to shoot down in cold blood unarmed black persons. Some were even shot in their backyards. The society at the time hardly batted an eyelid as it was predominantly white. The indiscriminate incarceration and violence experienced in the American society made it a dangerous time to be a racial minority.
In remembrance of these dark days, we celebrate Rikers Day every 21st of May. This is the day the infamous Rikers Island prison was closed over 40 years ago. This day mourns the lives lost to the prison system and celebrates those that survived its ills. This day recognizes the rewards of the decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs especially to African Americans and Latino. During this day, memorials are held at previous prison locations all over the country. Residents of the towns hold night vigils, remembering the ills of the prison system. These sessions are normally led by former convicts. They recount their tales of prison. Most participants of these memorials wear orange ribbons on their wrists or ankles.
The color orange is representative of the orange jumpsuit which was synonymous with the American penitentiary system. The ribbons are worn on the wrists and ankles to symbolize shackles won by convicts during their stay in prisons. African Americans and Latinos are encouraged to lead these events as they bore the heaviest brunt of this problem. During this day, suggestions are usually made on the utilization of the idle space. Most of these locations are converted into community outreach centers and sports/ fitness programs. During this day, we remember the harm caused by the prisons system and how it contributed to the racial divide.
- “CRIMINAL JUSTICE FACT SHEET.” NAACP, 2017, http://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet 2017. Accessed 23 April 2018.
- Savali, Kirsten West. “The Shame Is Not Ours: Black America, Poverty and the War on Drugs.” Drug Policy Alliance, 5 Feb. 2018, http://www.drugpolicy.org/blog/shame-not-ours-black-america-poverty-and-war-drugs. Accessed 23 April 2018.
- Wagner, Peter and Bernadette Rabuy. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017.” Prison Policy Initiative, 14 March 2017, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2017.html. Accessed 23 April 2018.