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Are Progressives Blind to the Prison-Industrial Complex?


Over the summer, my husband Dick and I attended one of the first meetings of the Downtown Los Angeles Chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America. Amid the high rises and lofts of the rapidly growing middleclass demographic of LA’s Civic Center, a modest sized group of progressive activists gathered on the patio of the Bonaventure Hotel.

In brainstorming ideas for organizing the growing numbers of downtown progressives in preparation of the 2008 Presidential Election and beyond, our discussions revolved around ending the war in Iraq, providing healthcare for all, public financing of political campaigns, and whether or not to impeach Bush and Cheney. Although the process was exhilarating, it was also somewhat disappointing. The exhilaration came from being in the company of others who share the belief that democracy cannot exist without an engaged citizenry. The disappointment came as I heard no mention of one of this nation’s major crises: the growing prison industrial complex.

According to The National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the U.S. incarceration rate is four to seven times that of other western nations such as Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany. Currently, there are approximately 2.2 million incarcerated in the US, costing us $55 billion a year. Just as troubling, the racial disparity that exists within the prison industrial complex is a glaring indictment of America’s failure to provide equal access to education and employment to all races.

A recent piece by Frank Russo of the California Progress Report described the plight of black men in this country’s urban areas as worse than many think. Russo wrote of young black men: “finishing high school is the exception, legal work is scarcer than ever, and prison is almost routine.” Russo noted that incarceration rates for black men continue to climb even though urban crime rates decline. There is no shortage of research and statistical data that indicate our country and our state is in a crisis. The Prison Policy Initiative—a Massachusetts think tank whose mission is to research and document the impact of mass incarceration in the U.S. reported the following statistics:

U.S. incarceration rates, males by race, 30 June 2006:

  • White males: 736 per 100,000
  • Latino males: 1,862 per 100,000
  • Black males: 4,789 per 100,000

US incarceration rates, males aged 25-29 by race, 30 June 2006:

  • For White males, ages 25-29: 1,685 per 100,000
  • For Latino males, ages 25-29: 3,912 per 100,000
  • For Black males, ages 25-29: 11,694 per 100,000

South Africa under Apartheid was internationally condemned as a racist society:

  • South Africa under Apartheid (1993), Black males: 851 per 100,000
  • US under George Bush (2006), Black males: 4,789 per 100,000

Although this crisis gets little attention in the media, progressives within the California Democratic Party submitted a resolution this past July to support parole and sentencing reform proposed by the Independent Review Panel and the Little Hoover Commission designed to address overcrowding in California prisons. While this resolution was sorely needed, there is still so much more that needs to be done. I continue to ask, why aren’t progressives more vocal about this crisis?

Many Americans look at prison overcrowding as a racial issue and therefore relegate it to the “special interest” category. The numbers make a compelling case that there is a racial component. Urban males, both Black and Latino, are at much greater risk for incarceration. Although I am Black, I’m not male. But I have a black son, step-son, two brothers, a father, and lots of cousins who are black men. The stories I’ve heard of their encounters with law enforcement officers differ significantly from what I’ve heard from my white family members. These stories, statistics, and anecdotal experiences inform me. Events in my own life have helped me to get a glimpse of what most urban young black men encounter on a regular basis.

Some years ago, my first husband and I purchased a fixer-upper house. It was our first real estate investment and we didn’t have much to invest. But what we lacked in finances we more than made up for in youth, optimism, and energy. We looked at the patch of dirt and weeds in the front yard and envisioned a beautifully landscaped oasis in the valley. After landscaping, the carpet, circa 1967, was the next item on the agenda. I remember driving past the house every day after work just to look at it as we waited for our loan to be approved. We could barely wait for escrow to close so we could begin all the work we were planning. We knew we’d need something to haul the old carpet and landscaping materials, so one of our first purchases was a very used pick-up truck. The brake lights didn’t work, the tires were bald, the paint was faded, patchy, and the body was dented. It needed new brakes, too, but the engine was good. If the engine was good and it could haul, I was fine. Our plan was to make the necessary repairs and use the truck as soon as it was legal.

Within a week, we closed escrow, moved in, bought the pick-up truck, and suddenly found ourselves having car problems. First, my car failed. Then, at the end of the week at about 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning, my husband woke me. His car had conked out and he had to get to work. There was only one solution. Because I had several things to do that day, I’d use the pick-up truck to drop him off and I’d arrange to get our cars to the mechanic later that day. So, let’s recap. It’s 5 a.m., I am unexpectedly awakened, we haven’t fully unpacked, and I have to get my husband to work ASAP.

I can’t find a comb. I grab a baseball cap and the nearest jacket I get my hands on and we’re out the door. He drives to his place of employment, gets out, we kiss each other goodbye, and then I take the wheel. At this point, we had owned this vehicle for maybe two days. I had never driven it because we intended to fix it first. So now I find myself behind the wheel of a truck with a manual transmission, barely any brakes, no brake lights, and expired tags. Although I wouldn’t normally drive under these conditions, I didn’t have much choice, plus I figured I didn’t have far to go and it was very early in the morning—perhaps 5:45 a.m. I cautiously took the wheel and began my way home.

Approaching an intersection about a mile from home, I noticed a police car ahead of me in the lane to my left. Knowing what I was driving, I became a little nervous. The officer was going in the same direction. He was at a full stop even though there was no stoplight. I figured he was about to make a left turn. I was only half right..

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As I carefully observed the posted speed limit and passed the officer, I suddenly saw why the officer had stopped. It wasn’t what I had assumed. The lights on top of the police car blocked my view of the pedestrian crossing in front of the officer’s car. As I was about to pass the police car, the pedestrian came into view. I had to swerve to avoid hitting him.

I was rattled but grateful I had avoided an accident. Justifiably, the police officer swerved his patrol car over to my lane, turned on the flashing lights, and directed me to pull over. I immediately did. It seemed to take a while for the officer to get out of his car. As I sat waiting, I looked into my sideview mirror just as he was exiting his car. He was a young white officer, maybe in his twenties, as was I. To my horror, as he slowly and cautiously approached my vehicle, he also released his gun from its holster! Although I’d only been pulled over two other times, once for going 65 m.p.h on the freeway and another time for driving with expired tags, I didn’t think this was normal.

In an instant I surmised that because of what I was wearing and driving the officer probably thought I was a man. My instincts also told me, “He thinks I’m a Black man. He’s afraid of me. He might try to hurt me.” I immediately rolled down my window and used my voice. I don’t even remember what I said. I only know that as soon as he heard my very feminine voice, everything about his body language changed. In an instant, the defensive posture was gone; the hand that was gripping the gun relaxed. He seemed visibly relieved to discover that I was a woman. So relieved, in fact, that when he asked me for my driver’s license and registration and I could provide neither (I’d forgotten my purse at home), he patiently listened to my story of the house and the truck and advised me to be more careful. He wished me and my husband luck, told me to have a good day, and said good bye. That was it.

I don’t know how many of you have ever had a police officer walk up to you with his gun in his hand but I can tell you that it is something you don’t forget. It’s easy to imagine that if that were to happen more than once, I might begin to develop a chip on my shoulder, especially if I were young and powerless. It’s also easy to see how someone might become rebellious and angry after several such encounters.

Progressives historically have been the voice of social justice. We are at a moment in U.S. history where our voices must demand change. There has been some movement lately in sentencing laws but in California, AB 900 passed with little notice. It’s time for more of us to take a stand.

The Brown Paper Bag Test

Sharon Kyle --

Sharon Kyle is the publisher of the LA Progressive.

This article was originally posted in the Northeast Democrat November 2007. Immediately after posting this article we received the following letter from Marcy Winograd, President of Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles. It is posted with her permission.

30 Nov 2007

Dear Dick and Sharon,

Please share in your next newsletter that Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles, a chapter of Progressive Democrats of America and the spokescouncil for local chapters, this past year made prison reform and criminal justice one of our focus issues. In keeping with that decision, we authored a resolution, endorsed by both the LACDP and the CA Dem Party, calling for an independent sentencing commission to overhaul the inequitable sentences in California.

In addition, Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles also signed on to an amicus (friendly) CURB brief, suing CA Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger for the deplorable conditions in California jails, condemning AB900, the 58,000-bed prison construction bill rammed through when no one was looking, and calling for a cap on the prison population.

Although PDLA has limited resources, we have also organized a prison reform subcommittee to make regular reports at our monthly meetings about issues of concern. We sent out statewide action alerts and called and faxed individual assembly members sitting on the fence on Gloria Romero's ill-fated bill to establish an independent sentencing commission. Our lead members attended the FACTS (Families to Amend California's Three Strikes law) dinner to show our support for the repeal of Three Strikes and when Jerry Brown visited our PDA suite during a CA Dem Party convention, we confronted him about his shameful support of Three Strikes.

I hope you will clarify for your readers that members of Progressive Democrats of America and Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles care deeply about addressing the inequities involved in incarcerating so many people of color in California, in spending $48,000 to incarcerate but only $8,000 to educate, and that we are speaking out and lobbying continuously for reform -- calling also for full public funding of Proposition 36, which voters passed to address needed drug treatment programs.

Thank you for your activism and call to action on this issue. I am copying Barbara Levin, the chair and lead organizer of the PDA chapter downtown. Barbara, also, has strongly supported these efforts.


Pres., Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles
Exec. Board Member, CDP, 41st AD

Read the PDA Challenge 2008 here