Incarcerated Racism: Issues of Race Behind Bars
A couple of weeks ago, we heard from N.K. Woods about his experience of racial tension as an incarcerated person. You can see that post here. Today on The Feed, Christian Walker offers his perspective on racism in the prison system. We hope this powerful statement about how the prison system perpetuates racial tension and what could be changed to address this tension moves you.
By Christian Walker
Issues of race and racial prejudice have always existed within prison walls. One would think that as society has made significant strides toward race and gender equality that issues of race would also diminish inside prisons. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Prisons can be some of the most racist environments in the country, mainly because they are filled with the most immoral and uneducated people per capita. Studies have continually shown that most prisoners come from low-income and broken families. Many never complete high school. Approximately 40% of inmates do not have high school credentials compared to the 18% of the general population (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2009).
I was told that under no circumstances did whites live, eat, or do any business with blacks.
Becoming a racial minority as a young white male entering the system in the late 1990s, I was challenged with several issues of race. As I went through the orientation process, the administration classified me according to my race. I was then housed according to my declared ethnicity and was invited to eat with other people of the same race within the dining hall. To go outside of these norms would be considered taboo and it often leads to ostracism and/or acts of violence. I was told that under no circumstances did whites live, eat, or do any business with blacks. Since racial prejudice was never an issue while growing up, the peer pressure that I felt to conform to these unwritten rules seemed overwhelming. I abided to these rules to avoid unnecessary tension, but I always maintained relationships with black people because we share common interests in music, sports, and religion.
As higher education for incarcerated people and prison employment have rapidly declined to the point of nonexistence over the past decade, it seems that racial tension and divisions have increased.
Interracial interactions have always been common inside prison walls through church, educational and vocational opportunities, and the gym. These positive interactions helped ease any tension within the housing units and dining halls because people got to know each other beyond skin color and cultural differences. However, as higher education for incarcerated people and prison employment have rapidly declined to the point of nonexistence over the past decade, it seems that racial tension and divisions have increased. The administration has also implemented a controlled movement policy that isolates the yard and makes activities extremely limited to attend or participate in. Thus, racial politicking has soared to an all time high, creating a prison within the prison. Even simple utilities such as the telephones, showers, game tables, and microwaves have been divided to assure racial balancing. If these trends continue, disaster is inevitable. Racial tension has become so thick that many people feel that it’s necessary to remain in a state of readiness for physical violence in case a riot occurs. Many times this mentality and defensive posture alone becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and a riotous situations occur over minor issues that could have been avoided. Furthermore, these social pressures have also made it difficult to play sports with other races, provide tutoring, legal assistance, and have fellowship within the church.
I believe the only way to resolve the division of race is when people choose to integrate.
The prison administration is well aware of the division of races and has tried in the past to resolve this issue by implementing integration and forcing inmates to live and eat together, but this tactic was short-lived because it only added to the problem. I believe the only way to resolve the division of race is when people choose to integrate. The administration can encourage positive interaction by uplifting the controlled movement policy and provide additional access into the chapel, gym, and education buildings. Reinstating the college Pell grant and the return of prison industries would also help to cure the racial divide while simultaneously preparing inmates for release.
It’s disheartening that thousands of inmates are released back into the community each year seeing the world through the lens of racial prejudice. With this mentality being passed down to younger generations, it’s no surprise why we are still seeing disturbing hate crimes being committed like the church massacre in South Carolina. Nevertheless, there are many contributing factors to racism and solely blaming the prison system’s lack of concern or using it as an excuse to remain divided is irresponsible. Education and work for incarcerated individuals could provide tremendous assistance toward conquering the racial divide that is plaguing our society, but I believe the defining solution remains within the will to overcome racism by seeing each other as God sees us. There’s only one race – the human race. And we are all precious and unique in God’s sight.