New York Prisons Refuse To Go

16 Mar 2011

According to a report from the NYS Department of Correctional Services, there were 58,387 people under custody in New York as of January, 2010. Of that number, 49.2% were from NYC, and 23% from upstate urban areas. Over 75% were African-American or Hispanic.

These inmates, and the prisons where they live, provide economic benefits to many upstate towns and villages. Even though the incarceration rate is falling, and the state is trying to save money by closing some of these facilities, they are not going down without a fight. History, and specifically the 19th Century, might be able to tell us why…

Why urban minorities make up over 75% of the prison population


“Rockefeller demonstrated his newfound commitment to law and order in 1971, when he crushed the Attica prison uprising. By proposing the harshest drug laws in the United States, he took the lead on an issue that would soon dominate the nation’s political agenda. In his State of the State address Rockefeller argued not only that all drug dealers should be imprisoned for life but also that plea-bargaining should be forbidden in such cases and that even juvenile offenders should receive life sentences…The Rockefeller drug laws, enacted a few months later by the state legislature, were somewhat less draconian: the penalty for possessing four ounces of an illegal drug, or for selling two ounces, was a mandatory prison term of fifteen years to life.” —Eric Schlosser, The Atlantic Monthly

The 19th Century:

“On the local level, most southern towns and municipalities passed strict vagrancy laws to control the influx of black migrants and homeless people who poured into these urban communities in the years after the Civil War. In Mississippi, for example, whites passed the notorious ‘Pig Law’ of 1876, designed to control vagrant blacks at loose in the community. This law made stealing a pig an act of grand larceny subject to punishment of up to five years in prison. Within two years, the number of convicts in the state penitentiary increased from under three hundred people to over one thousand.” —Ronald L. F. Davis, California State University

The crime rate may be falling, but…


“My colleagues and I have worked diligently to keep these critical facilities open. They provide employment for hundreds of people and are vital to the economic health of these upstate communities. As I have said all along, this Senate Majority cares deeply about the needs of upstate New York, and will continue to work with its residents to ensure that their education and skills are properly utilized.” —Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson (D-Mt. Vernon)

“Ogdensburg and Moriah Shock are economic engines for the North Country, not only meeting our public protection needs, but also sustaining hundreds of local jobs…From the start our priority was to save these two facilities and keep these jobs in the community.” —Senate Democratic Leader John L. Sampson

The 19th Century:

“While most believe that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, a loophole was opened that resulted in the widespread continuation of slavery in the Southern states of America–slavery as punishment for a crime…The Southern states were generally broke and could not afford either the cost of building or maintaining prisons. The economic but morally weak and incorrect solution was to use convicts as a source of revenue, at least, to prevent them from draining the fragile financial positions of the states.” —Digital History

“It was (the Pig Law) that turned the convict lease system into a profitable business, whereby convicts were leased to contractors who sub-leased them to planters, railroads, levee contractors, and timber jobbers. Almost all of the convicts in this situation were blacks, including women, and the conditions in the camps were horrible in the extreme.” —Ronald L. F. Davis, California State University

The Compensation Option


“We understand your situation and your problem: a community that is going to deal with the loss of a prison will receive a $10 million economic transformation program grant.” —Gov. Andrew Cuomo

The 19th Century:

“I recommend the adoption of a joint resolution by your honorable bodies, which shall be substantially as follows: Resolved, That the United States ought to cooperate with any State which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such State pecuniary aid, to be used by such State, in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system.” —Abraham Lincoln

The real issue…?


“Those people don’t deserve college. Three-hots-and-a-cot is too good for them. Education never reformed anybody. Why should my tax dollars be wasted on educating prisoners? They’re just trying to get something for free.” —miscellaneous comments from people when I tell them I’m teaching a class in prison

The 19th Century:

“The movement to end convict leasing in Mississippi resulted in the creation of Parchman Farm, and the man behind it was the ‘White Chief,’ Governor James K. Vardaman. Using race-baiting and fears of black lawlessness and criminality to gain power, Vardaman was convinced that a prison farm, ‘like an efficient slave plantation,’ was necessary to provide young African-Americans with the ‘proper discipline, strong work habits, and respect for white authority’ that the end of slavery had eliminated.” —Robert M. Goldman, reviewing David Oshinsky’s book, Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice




One Response to “New York Prisons Refuse To Go”

  1. The large majority of the incarcerated today are in for drug related activity and/or were high when they committed the crime. In Miami known dope holes are allowed to operate so a few hundred people can be harvested every Friday and Saturday night to create “clients” for the criminal justice “industry”. This create revenue and employment for employees of the criminal justice “industry”. Why don’t they just shut down the dope hole? Afghanistan produces 70% of world’s opium. If we are having a war on drugs and have 160,000 troops there why aren’t we napalming the poppy fields? The US, therefore must be in collusion with production and distribution. The process has been called the “felonization of America”

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