With Eddie Conway

Eddie Conway: ‘It’s Not Mass Incarceration, It’s Targeted’

Prisons aren’t “correctional” facilities, because they have no interest in correcting anything; the multibillion-dollar prison industry is interested in profits, and institutional racism keeps the money flowing, says TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway

Story Transcript

CARD: The Real News Executive Producer Eddie Conway was recently featured on a panel at the annual National Legal Aid and Defender Association conference.

EDDIE CONWAY: I disagree that this is an era of mass incarceration even though Michelle Alexander did an excellent job in her research. The fact is that this is targeted incarceration. The fact is that in those populations of 2.2 million and 5 million, at least 75% of those people are people of color, black, brown, Native American, et cetera. This is targeted, this is not mass incarceration. This is an economic system, and people say crime don’t pay.

The fact of the matter is crime do pay, because I go back to when I got incarcerated. I got locked up in 1970. In 1970 manufacturing jobs were being shipped overseas. Automation and cybernation was starting to come into the manufacturing industry. Factories closed down in most rural areas. People lost their jobs. In urban areas, people lost their jobs. What replaced those jobs, and I’m from Maryland, so I can speak directly about Maryland. Cumberland, Maryland, a massive prison complex. Eastern Shore. Somerset, a massive prison complex. Hagerstown, a massive prison complex. Jessup, Maryland. The prison complex in the State of Maryland grew from seven major prisons doing that time to within 10 years almost 27 major prisons. The population increased in those prisons from 7,000 at that time to almost 24,000.

This was an economic arrangement. People were employed. People in rural areas got jobs maintaining prison, supplying prisons, guarding prisoners. People in urban areas that lost their jobs end up in those prisons because one of the things, and one of the factors that we have to consider … If you want to help your clients, if you want to help people, you have to consider this, this institutional racism involved in this process.

Not only is it an economic arrangement because people have jobs. Parole officers have jobs, lawyers have jobs. Judges have jobs. Obviously, correctional officers have jobs, but teachers and medical people in the institutions and all, it’s a really multi-billion dollar incarceration system. It’s not doing anything about crime because you go to other industrial nations, they have less people incarcerated. They have less crime, and they have more stable civil societies in the community. In the United States of America you have 25% of the world’s prisons are here, 25%. I think it’s maybe 200 nations now. Twenty-five percent of that 200 nation population that’s in jail is here in the United States, which is only 5% of the world population. There’s something wrong with that, and yet crime has been going down.

I recognize that in some states there has been decreases in the prison population. The other side of that is that the incarceration in your community is increasing. Prisons are actually becoming privatized. Home-monitoring. The prison system had expanded outside of the walls of the prison into the community where if you take your loved one, your son, your daughter, your friend, or somebody into your house, your house becomes a prison. It’s subjected to all of the regulations that you are subjected to in prison. They come in, and knock your door down any given time, and search your premise, and do anything they want to within the rights of treating your house like a prison once you sign that agreement.

If you want to help, I think first it’s important to recognize the language that we use. We’re not talking about mass incarceration. We’re talking about institutional racism. We’re talking about targeted incarceration. We’re talking about an economic system that people are benefiting from and don’t really have an interest in changing because it’s beneficial.

The prison system itself, correctional officers, has no incentive whatsoever to correct you because they’re empire building. They are sergeants, they are lieutenants. They are captains. The sergeants want to be lieutenants. The lieutenants want to be captains, and the captains want to be majors. The majors want to be wardens. The only way that can happen is that the prison population expands, that people continue to join the ranks of those people that are incarcerated whether inside or outside. It’s the only way that they will increase their salary, pay for their houses, their boats, et cetera. They have no interest in correcting.

When you use those terms, correctional officer, it’s bullshit. You have to face that. When you use a lot of these terms that we’re using, reform. There’s no reform. The prison is just going into the black community. That’s not being reformed. It’s about economics. It’s not about economics are staying in the community because prisoners now and prisoners’ families are paying for that reform. They’re paying for those visits to parole officers. They’re paying for urinary tests. They’re paying for other kind of supervision. They’re paying for monitoring. If they don’t pay, they go back into the prison system, and somebody else steps up and take their place.

The first thing we have to do is we have to recognize, we have to start. I don’t know about this speaking truth to power thing, but we have to start looking at this for what it is. Whatever is happening on that front end, it’s creating your population and your clientele on the back end. In order for you to help them, you have to understand the process and how they got to where they are because it’s not just an unfair system. It’s a system designed to further impoverish the people that you are trying to help move back into society, which are never, never allowed to actually integrate fully back in society because they’ve lost so many things including what little wealth, and they didn’t have any wealth at all because the prison populations in general are the poorest part of the American economy. The prison population’s families are also the poorest families in the American economy. When you add that burden to prison, you actually make them poorer, and you make them more vulnerable.

You name the city, in the urban communities, there’s rampant violence, rampant crime, rampant deterioration. When you trace a lot of that stuff, it goes back to the correctional system, made in America. This damage, these people, these human beings have been damaged there. They come back and continue to do harm to the community in a more massive kind of way. In order to help your clients you really, really have to start thinking about this. This arrangement is not working for anybody except people that’s being paid.