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A Nation’s War on Physical Freedom
By Imam Khalid Fattah Griggs
The United States of America has become the undisputed global leader in the incarceration of its population. At a cost of $80 billion to US taxpayers, more than 2.4 million people are housed in federal, state, and county detention facilities throughout the country. America is unrivalled by any nation in its per capita incarceration rate and composite numbers, including totalitarian regimes like China, Russia, and Syria. Per the average of US Census Bureau figures of 1860 and 1870, it is generally assumed that the total prison population in the country in 1865 was around 25,994. During the ensuing 100 years, 1965, 184,901 Americans were confined in federal and state prisons. How could the prison population in America have quintupled in the ensuing 50-year span, 2015, while garnering such relatively minimum resistance from the American people?
Well-researched books, such as Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking work, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” mainly attribute the quantum leap in the prison population to the so-called “War on Drugs.” Declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the War on Drugs primarily targeted African Americans at a time when the Civil Rights Movement had basically ended and been replaced by the Black Power Movement. The War on Drugs has been called everything from a “War on Black People,” a “Total Sham,” and “America’s Greatest Hypocrisy.” While US law enforcement officers aggressively locked up mostly African American drug addicts and low-level street dealers, the CIA colluded with narco-trafficking thugs in Vietnam and Laos to protect their drug enterprises and bring heroin into the United States for street distribution. Going against Congressional mandates, President Ronald Reagan nevertheless supported the Contras in the 1980s in their attempt to overthrow the democratically elected Sandanista government in Nicaragua by using planes to secretly fly weapons to the Contras and then piloting the same planes to fly cocaine back into the country for sale on the streets of America. The United States installed Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan while his brother, who was apparently on the payroll of the CIA, was one of the largest opium dealers in the country. Afghanistan supplies 90 percent of the world’s opium/heroin today with the United States being by far its biggest market.
But if the truth be told, the maddening rush towards mass incarceration began not with the War on Drugs, but at least 15-years earlier with President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Crime.” As Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” after shepherding the 1964 Civil Rights Bill through Congress, followed by the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act, he presented to Congress the Law Enforcement Assistance Act. The LEAA established a direct role for the federal government in “local police operations, court systems, and state prisons for the first time in American history.” Federal law enforcement agencies would now provide tactical support for local departments, if requested, as well as supply their state and local counterparts with more lethal weapons. With $400 million of seed money allocated to the “War on Crime,” Democratic and Republican legislators found a mutually agreed upon mission to get the criminals off the streets, most of whom just happened to be Black.
Although African Americans and Latinos represent one quarter of the country’s population, they currently constitute 59 percent of the incarcerated community. In a grim, sobering commentary on the future prospects for Black people in this country, author Sidney Wilhelm wrote in his 1971 book, “Who Needs the Negro” that…”the key point is that slavery came into being for economic reasons, and racism came into being to rationalize the enslavement of blacks…If the white American no longer needed the black American’s labor, this does not mean that the white American would no longer be racist…he might feel free to express his racism fully.” Mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States is a vile manifestation of structural racism against a people who are no longer needed for their labor in a profoundly changed economy. Latinos are only second to African Americans in their incarceration rate in this country. They are also disproportionately represented in Immigration Detention Centers. These Centers are proliferating across the country, many of them, like their prison counterparts, are privately owned and lacking in basic humanitarian amenities, like edible and sufficient food and freedom from abuse.
Muslims are another group in America whose carceral rate far exceeds our percentage of the total population. According to a 2008 report by the US Commission on Civil Rights, Muslims “constitute nearly a tenth of the US prison population, and their numbers are rapidly rising.” This is a distressing trend because Muslims are approximately only 1.8 percent of the total population of the US. Prison chaplains and volunteers almost uniformly conclude that Muslim inmates are routinely discriminated against by guards and prison administrators. This discrimination is often rooted in misinformation about Islam and individual prejudice. Despite evidence to the contrary, politicians, non-Muslim religious leaders, and prison administrators perpetuate the notion that incarcerated Muslims represent an imminent threat to the prison population as well as on the outside due to their propensity to become radicalized. Muslim inmates, when exposed to sound Islamic teachings and practice, are less inclined to violent, anti-social behavior and instead because peacemakers. In addition to developing better self-discipline, individuals who convert to Islam while incarcerated often demonstrate a greater interest in earnestly reading and studying, perhaps for the first time in their lives. Incarcerated Muslims are not a disposable segment of our Ummah rather their very existence challenges us to offer our assistance. Message International, is starting a new section for our incarcerated Brothers and Sisters called “Inside Out.” Submit your articles of 1,000-2,500 words to Editor Message International, 166-26 89th Ave., Jamaica New York 11432 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Submissions will not be returned.