The System is Based on Profit
In part one of a two-part interview, artist and activist Paul Rucker discusses his work and how it relates to mass incarceration in the United States. Rucker also touches on the upcoming Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March and what it should address.
PAUL RUCKER: Much of my work today, I guess, in recent years, deals with the slavery system and the prison system. You know, systems that went seamlessly from one to the other, and pretty much telling the story, like with my show Rewind was paralleling the systems and how we transition from one to the other. You know, how both systems were profitable.
How both systems worked for some people and definitely not others. But, we’ve been a country that’s been built on the labour of others. Whether it be the Chinese that build the railroads, you know, the Chinese Exclusion Act, or the cotton, indigo, rice crops that were farmed by the slaves, or the many Japanese immigrants that came, you know, that were also incarcerated after World War II, after Japan(?) was attacked.
But, you also have to look at the legacy of this country as an entity. As the Trail of Tears with the native American population. All these things are infused in my work right now. A lot of these things are history that we weren’t taught. And so, my work around the slavery, and the prison system, and history that we weren’t taught about is what I’m focusing on lately. And also, women’s issues, as far as the voting rights, are also a big issue.
Our juvenile system is pre-jail, pre-prison for young people. They want to get you into the system early. When I say “they”, we have a system that we spend $180 billion on annually on the state, federal and local level. And this is not a… if that amount of money is not an accident, there are a lot of jobs, there are a lot of people that are making money from the catering, the food service aspect, psychiatric service, the dental, and everything.
So, in order to make sure that this system stays in place, they make sure that the recidivism rate – that’s the rate of return to prison – is high. And they’re going to make sure that there’s going to be newcomers to the prison system starting at an early age. So, this system is rigged to start recruiting people. They’ve probably heard the statistic, or the information, that we decide how many prisons we’re going to build based on 4th grade reading scores.
Some say it goes even earlier than that. Looking at demographics, looking at unemployment in certain areas, and building prisons based on that information.
So, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population, but we are… our population is only 5% of the world’s population. So, there’s a huge problem there. That we went from one industry of slavery to the industry of the prison system.
As far as youth goes, I mean, there’s been attempts to stop building these youth jails here and I also live in Seattle. We stopped one from being built for a while. It only housed 100 beds, and the judicial facilities were also going to be housed there. And at the cost of $210 million, and it was slowed down, but it’s being built right now as we speak.
So, there’s a lot of big money behind making sure that juveniles are incarcerated in this country. And we currently have about 4,500 juveniles in adult prisons that are not counted in the 28,000 that are incarcerated. And I think there are around 34,000 that are in situations that are not regular prisons, that are not bars, so those… so we count a lot of these folks in different ways. But if you’re incarcerated, if you’re being detained and held in a place, that’s a different form of incarceration.
So, I think looking at a system, looking at juvenile incarceration as if it’s the norm, and it’s not broken, is the way we need to actually approach it. I think following the money is an important way that we need to approach the system, as well.
Because of the cost of incarcerating some youth is a lot higher than adults because they do creative accounting around well, they need schooling, and they need more supervision because they’re youth. But the cost of incarcerating each youth can go well over $100,000 a year. And that’s creative costs, not actual costs.
PAUL RUCKER: I think marches are great, and I think it’s great to bring awareness to any and all subjects. I created this map called Proliferation. It’s an animated map of the U.S. prison system, and it shows that we have a lot of prisons. Since 1976 we’ve built, on average, one new prison a week. And I wanted to show and not tell.
It’s been used by policy organizations, it’s been used by individuals to show things, to influence change, because it’s prison-based gerrymandering, where prison populations are being used and manipulated for political gain. So, and that it’s been changing. There’s been laws changing prison-based gerrymandering.
There has to be some focus on changing policy and it needs to specify which policies that we want to have change as far as the prison system. And then figure out action items for those policies. Real action items. And those action items need to be really inclusive. They need to involve people within your community, and also people outside of your community.
There’s a lot of money involved in any of these broken systems that we have. And our country, whether it be healthcare, the prison system, gun violence. There’s billions of dollars involved in each one of these systems. And taking the candy away from those folks is very difficult, because they’re playing… they’re paying millions of dollars a year on lobbyists to make sure that these policies stay in place.
So, I believe in marches. But I think we also need to get lobbyists, we need to get people who can look and take on unlawful policing. We need to hire lobbyists to look at how policemen are never held accountable for their actions. There needs to be some kind of mandatory steroid testing of police officers. I think I mentioned that last time, I was here two years ago, and there’s been no action done on that. Because that’s a very important thing, because there are some people that had theories around Freddy Gray’s death that, you know, that what was on the policeman, the black officers might have experienced some kind of ‘roid rage because the sever to the spine might have happened before he was even put in the back of the truck. This is all theory, of course. But I think it’s important to not just test policemen for marijuana, or cocaine, but steroids, as well.
So, I think you can march with a sign, but I think looking at the different policies that you’d like to change is very important. And working with organizations that’ve had experience changing those policies is also important, as well.
The statistical information that I use for my prison data is from the Prison Policy Initiative. And they put out some really comprehensive information each year. It’s called The Whole Pie. So, they have a lot of information around statistics and data. Yeah.
The system is based on profit. And if you want profit, it will work. It’s the system that will work incarcerating people, and forced-labor will work, as well. If you look at UNICOR, they make furniture. They make mattresses. They make electronics for schools. They make night vision goggles and helmets in the prison system. They’re being paid between 33 cents and $1.24 an hour. But it’s a system that works. It’s a profitable system that works. Actually, UNICOR is the 47th biggest military contractor.
How do you counter a profitable system if you start looking at the human benefit analysis of your actions as opposed to the cost benefit analysis that we can change? But the basic structure of how we do things and who we’re beholden to a lot of times can skew our thinking, our thinking that helps people.
For example, it’s not a black-white issue, as a lot of people would like to make it out to be. You can have just as much opposition and barriers that are created by people of color, or black people, within a black community. You know, with Freddy Gray, three of the six officers were black, and a black mayor, black police chief – it doesn’t matter.
But, I think the other actions that happen within a system, when people in power are able to make changes that promote equity, like Mayor Pugh — who just voted down, who vetoed the minimum wage change — that is one of the major things that creates this disparity in wealth. And disparity in opportunity. And if we give people jobs and give them a livable wage, we will see crime go down. We will see that disparity in wealth go away. And it’ll get smaller and smaller. But as long as we have people in power who are beholden to other business owners, who don’t want to pay a living wage, then it feeds into the whole system.
The big problem of the system that we have in place today, where there’s a disproportionality in wealth, and there’s a disproportionality in opportunity, and there’s a disproportionality in incarceration. And as long as we have selective enforcement of laws, we’re going to continue, because you can tell someone that if you’re black you’re eight times more likely to get arrested for pot.
But this goes over people’s heads. We know that there’s racial profiling and police stops, but it’s still kind of goes over people’s heads. It’s this we still talk about these things, but there’s been very little to address bias in policing, and bias in everything that we do in this country.
PAUL RUCKER: A lot of my recent work has been looking at the negro as a problem. Ever since the Emancipation Proclamation the negro has been seen as a problem. There are many books. One recent book that I just bought, from 1907, called “The Negro Menace to Civilization.” I’ve bought a couple of dozen books around the negro being a problem from the late 1800s to 1947. There are a bunch of them that are written by medical doctors, professors and other scholars, people you would not think would have this ideology around folks. But how do you go, and move forward, if you’re seen as a problem in society?
I don’t know the answer. My answer to most situations is we need to look at the roots of our history and how this country was formed. How this country became a country. It was not founded on altruism and being kind. It was brutality from day one. And, I think if we learn the true aspect of, or true areas of our history, and how we were founded, I mean, and to have some kind of reconciliation, we can actually move forward. But if we keep pretending on being this God-fearing country where every person was treated fair and equal — when we have this history of lynching in the country, where over 5,000 people were lynched from the late 1800s to 1947, and no one was ever prosecuted for those lynching’s — we have a problem.
And people that are still alive today that were part of those lynchings, like the woman that was a part of Emmett Till’s killing, who just confessed that it was all made up. This young man died and was murdered and lynched because she made up the story.
So, I think we really have to look at ourselves and second alcoholic’s saying they’re an alcoholic, you know, and America saying, you know, we were founded on racism, sexism and exploitation of people. And it kind of goes against when you’re a kid when you’re told that if you do the right thing, good things will happen to you.
Do unto others as they do unto you. I think we have to really take a deep look at ourselves, and who we are as a people, and how we got here. And then we may be able to move forward in reconciling, and actually creating a place where there is true justice for all.
PAUL RUCKER: When I first started working on prison issues, I started working for the Innocence Project. I was working on people who were wrongfully incarcerated, you know, because for me it’s, like, oh, you know, that was easy. I can work for people who were wrongfully incarcerated.
But I was younger. I didn’t understand disproportionality and process, you know, and sentencing. I didn’t understand how the system was broken in so many ways, how the system was a factory. You know? It was a way of making a lot of money. I was a lot younger then. And I went to a Prison Issues residency, where I met formerly incarcerated folks who were activists, and writers, and some pretty well known folks that I didn’t know that they were well known, until I got there.
And other people who’d been working on prison issues for, you know, 30, 40, 50 years. And they taught me about the healthcare aspect of the system, the… the brutality, the treatment, the disproportionality in sentencing. They taught me about all these other aspects. I had a learning curve, even when I was already working to fix the system, there were a lot of aspects about the system that I didn’t understand.
And I also learned that when I would tell people that I was working on prison issues, some of them had this flat out, well, they’re in prison, they deserve to be there. And this is what we’re battling against. That if you’re in prison, you deserve to be there, you’ve done something that warranted it, our system works. And people have this idea that the system does work. So, this is also controlling that narrative.
I think within the group that already agrees with you, it’s easy to control the narrative, because they agree with you. But working with people who have this pre-set of ideas of why people are in prison, and the books that I’ve been collecting about the negro menace to society, talks about how black people are more prone to violence.
Actually, the case in Texas recently that was ruled by the Supreme Court, overturned, because a judge ruled based on a psychiatrist’s statement saying, you know, since he’s black, he’s more prone to re-commit a crime. He was sentenced based on that. This happened recently… it hasn’t been that long ago that this happened. And it was overruled, I think in the past couple of months.
So, the criminality, the looking at these folks as being natural born criminals, is something that may not even be addressed at this march. I think you have to look at the psyche of how people view prisoners, and bringing in people and figuring out ways to educate people, that this has been a conspiracy since the beginning of this country. I mean, the act of being black was criminalized.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, people were picked up for the Convict Leasing Program. Convict Leasing Program happened because all that labour disappeared. We had… in 1860 alone, we had $200 million in cotton sales –- in 1860 alone, we were exporting cotton to Europe. Seventy-five percent of Europe’s cotton came from the U.S., from the South. It equaled $200 million. That would equal $5 billion today.
So, they don’t let that go. Blacks were incarcerated and jailed after the Emancipation Proclamation, for simple acts as walking along the railroad tracks, or loitering, or basically no reason at all, because they could just be picked up. And then they were given these sentences, and then they were leased out to farms and plantations, because cotton-picking didn’t stop after slavery ended –- or supposedly ended. It kept on going.
So, I guess what I’m really saying with this march, there needs to be a true effort to talk about American history, as far as how we got from here to here. From slavery to the Convict Leasing Program, to the modern slavery we have today in the current prison system, and how we got here.
And the systems, the quotas that are in place, whether it be the Immigration and Custom Enforcement, ICE facilities, because these towns are lobbying, who are these people that are lobbying to have these prisons brought to their towns? Why are these people not being brought into this conversation in this march? And there has to be this humanization of people that are affected by this.
There’s been an effort from slavery on to now, to dehumanize, to lessen who is human and blacks –- and women –- have been in that equation. And there are plenty of books, documents… okay, documents, our Constitution –- our Constitution is a pro-slavery compact, is a pro-slavery document. And I mean, it changed with the amendments, but when people talked about the Constitution, it wasn’t… blacks were not free, women did not have the right to vote, hasn’t even been a hundred years that women have had the right to vote yet. 1920.
So, 2020 when it will be a hundred years that women have had the right to vote. But even before women received the right to vote, 50 years before that, black men received the right to vote, but they didn’t really receive the right to vote. Because I’ve been collecting press photos lately of… I have a press photo of a black man standing on his porch in 1962, because the Klan we’re coming to his door that evening, because he had just registered to vote earlier that day. He crossed Klan lines.
So, there were efforts to stop folks –- voter oppression. And we’ve recently had that Voting Rights Act gutted. You know, before Obama left, on his watch, the Voting Rights Act was gutted. We’ve had race-based gerrymandering, and this redrawing of districts along race-based lines. We have lawsuits in North Carolina, Missouri, and Texas right now based on that.
I think there’s a long history of rebellion within the prison system. There’s rebellions in the slavery system. I think people will know about the… what was the guy that they made the movie about? Um… Nat Turner. People know that name. He’s, like, the McDonald’s of rebellions, you know? People know that name.
You know, John Brown. You know, the white guy that rebelled. You know, and the Harper’s Ferry. But there’s a lot of things we don’t know. There were a lot of other people… I’ve been studying this guy named Reverend Lovejoy. He ran a press, an abolitionist newspaper. He had his press burned down, and he built another one, had that one burned down. And he moved over to Chicago, to Alton, and that time they burned his press down, and then they killed him. But he was an amazing white guy who worked really hard to work with the abolitionists, to make sure these things don’t happen again. He was trying to end slavery, so, like stop this system, that it’s not a product of God’s will.
And I think rebellions are a wonderful thing, but I think the way you can disseminate information, like, he was doing something that was really dangerous, he was presenting information in news form. He was giving these newspapers — I’ve been collecting these abolitionist newspapers from the 1800s, and they’re amazing papers, because they in particular showed me that there have been people that have been working hard on abolition, black and white, and other.
Rebellion has to be accompanied by other things. Other partners, policy partners, and I think one of the biggest things that we really need to consider, is the lack of inclusiveness in the process. And I think white progressives are going to experience another four years of Trump, of the orange guy, of the Cheeto Man, if they don’t understand that there’s a huge connect –- or huge disconnect –- between the progressive white, and the working white in rural America, who’ve lost their jobs, who’ve been infected with opiate use, who’ve been affected by unemployment, and the factories closing.
So, there’s a huge disconnect in that community, that the Orange Guy was able to tap into. And I think… I get these emails from people who are wanting to organize, and they’re not including this other demographic that voted for Trump. I’m about to take my show on the road, and my show “Rewind” did really well here at Creative Alliance, in the Baltimore Museum of Art. It won Best Show, Best Solo Show, it won some awards, and I received other awards because of it.
After the election, I realize there’s this… it’s almost a, so what? aspect. If you take something and you bring it to the audience that’s going to appreciate it in one way, but there are other communities out there that need to see the artwork. So, I received an email from someone who wanted me to bring the show to Ferguson, Missouri, where Mike Brown was killed by Darren Wilson.
So, I agreed to bring the show there, so I’m bringing my show there. I’m taking it to Eastern Washington in June, where it’s going to be in Ellensburg, Washington, where the Klan has been actively recruiting people. So, I’m taking it there. I’m taking it to York, Pennsylvania, a place that voted for Obama, and they voted for Trump, Trumpland. And there’s a lot of these areas across the country that a lot of white progressives don’t understand, “How did this happen?” Well, you have a job, and a lot of them don’t, and they’re suffering.
So, I think bringing this to these places, and I’m taking it to North Carolina, as well as taking it to Richmond, Virginia. So, I think it’s really, really important to take it to other places. And this goes back to the march again, if we’re going to have a march, we need to have more of an inclusive march. Invite people in that may not totally understand where we’re coming from, but they might be allies later.
Who might be on the fence about what this, understands, but it’s our job, and it’s our opportunity that we have, to inform them about this perspective, this narrative, or this way of looking at our prison system, or looking at any system for that matter, and how we can actually change it.
And I never say the system is broken, because it’s working exactly the way it was planned.