International Human Rights Day: Leading Coalition of African American
Faith Leaders Calls For End to War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration
Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference Releases Key Findings
From Yearlong Series of Hearings in Nine States
Contact: Iva E. Carruthers, Ph.D.
December 9, 2013
In conjunction with the December 10th 2013 commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (SDPC) is releasing key findings from community-based hearings it has convened around the nation on mass incarceration.
Founded in 2003, the mission of the SDPC is to nurture, sustain, and mobilize the African American faith community in collaboration with civic, corporate, and philanthropic leaders to address critical needs of human and social justice within local, national, and global communities. SDPC seeks to strengthen the individual and collective capacity of thought leaders and activists in the church, academy and community through education, advocacy and activism. Over the past several years, the SDPC has focused on developing a national education and awareness campaign, resourcing the African American faith community to address mass incarceration.
From September 2012 through November 2013, the SDPC convened a series of forums in nine states as statewide justice hearings on the issue of mass incarceration. These hearings, held in a variety of public venues, included panels of Commissioners who heard testimonies from people impacted by the criminal justice system. Commissioners and those who testified represented a broad range of individuals such as lawmakers, social workers, health care providers, attorneys, leaders from the non-profits sector, students, theologians, children of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons. These SDPC hearings, which have been videotaped and transcribed, included hundreds of participants in the following states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Virginia.
Issues presented during the hearings included the War on Drugs and its consequences and collateral damage in the U.S., the impact of private prisons on public policy, re-entry and rehabilitation of formerly incarcerated persons, incarceration of women, experiences of children and families impacted by incarceration, the school to prison pipeline, policies related to youth detention centers, elder care and death and dying in prisons, health and environment within prisons, parole, solitary confinement and death row practices, law enforcement training, and the role of faith communities in the challenges of mass incarceration.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2.3 million people behind bars. The United States represents less than 5% of the world’s population, yet is home to almost 25% of those incarcerated in the world. And drug law enforcement clearly has a disproportionate racial impact. African Americans represent nearly 50% of those who are incarcerated in the U.S., yet only represent 13% of the entire population. And, while African Americans comprise only 13% of drug users, they make up 38% of those arrested for drug law violations and 59% of those convicted of drug law violations. African Americans are more than 10 times more likely than white people to be sent to prison for drug offenses.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has told the United States that the stark racial disparities in the administration and functioning of its criminal justice system “may be regarded as factual indicators of racial discrimination” (United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination 2008, paragraph 20). Human Rights Watch and other prominent organizations have repeatedly pointed out the disproportionate racial impact of the drug war and its conflict with the standards of international human rights law.
The SDPC hearings also emphasized the negative impact of the trend towards national and state privatization and profiteering from prisons, and its influence in incentivizing over-incarceration. Eight percent of the prisoners in the U. S. are now in private prisons. For-profit companies now hold 6% of state prisoners and 16% of federal prisoners. This reflects an 80% growth in private prisons between 1999 and 2010 and 259% growth in the number of detainees in private prisons between 2002-2010.
“When many Americans think of human rights abuses, they imagine them happening in other countries. But the U.S. system of mass incarceration represents a human rights catastrophe right here at home,” said Dr. Iva Carruthers, General Secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. “It’s an issue of humanity and morals that the faith community has a responsibility to address. As we mourn the death of President Nelson Mandela, we should remember his words that
‘no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.'”
Major findings of the hearings:
- Individuals caught in the system, a large percentage of whom committed non-violent offenses, have suffered and continue to suffer a serious abrogation of their rights as human beings.
- Mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, as a human rights issue, has adversely and disproportionately affected people of color, specifically black males, disproportionately, but has also affected their families and overall communities.
- The War on Drugs has not abated the presence of drugs in poor and black communities, but has been, rather, a war on people least able to protect and defend themselves.
- Those caught in “the system,” and those who merely live in high-risk areas, meaning, neighborhoods where police are more likely to round up people who have drug issues, have been demonized, criminalized, and marginalized.
- Privatization of prisons has created substantial profits for those who benefit and has become a substantial market within the economy, creating and sustaining pre-incarceration, incarceration and post-incarceration businesses and industries.
- Mass incarceration is viewed and manifested as a system of racialized control and highly correlated with poverty.
- Mass incarceration has an abysmal effect on family life and structures in black communities.
- Mass incarceration causes a plethora of collateral consequences which prove to be devastating and annihilating for young people, seriously hampering and compromising their life opportunities.
- Mass incarceration feeds directly into and is a major cause of the so-called “school to prison pipeline,” a process whereby schools become sites of incubation for young people to be pushed into the criminal justice system.
- Mass incarceration is not about rehabilitation but rather dehumanizes and demonizes the formerly incarcerated.
Key recommendations from the hearings include:
- The billions of dollars and resources that law enforcement expends on the War on Drug should be re-invested in working collaboratively and affirmatively to develop and fund successful preventative and supportive programs to build educational and recreational programs, increase community safety and public health programs, and address the prevention and solving of serious and violent crimes.
- Standards for alternative policies to zero-tolerance, suspension and expulsion must be designed and implemented in public school systems across the nation.
- Investments in neighborhood recreational centers, after-school and mentoring programs must be an alternative to investments in youth detention centers.
- A substantial paradigm shift that aligns the goal of incarceration to one of rehabilitation and restorative justice within families and communities is required.
- The process of preparing for re-entry of formerly incarcerated persons should begin at the point of conviction and involves the familial networks.
- Expanding the privatization of prisons should be halted. They are not compatible with a free and democratic society, though they are quite profitable for financial stakeholders.
- Faith communities should facilitate the institutionalized development of citizen advocates and system partners of oversight to ensure a more equitable and humane criminal justice system in the courts, in prisons and as related to post release treatments and supports for rehabilitation and restorative justice.