Hip Hop Gulag

  1. The Jail Generation
    By Dan Hoyle, AlterNet
    April 18, 2004

    "I've been working fourteen years to keep my sanity, now I'm on vacation," mused J.J. Tennison, speaking in a slow, metered voice. In 1990, Tennison, then 18, and Antoine "Soda Pop" Goff, then 21, were convicted of manslaughter and sent to separate state prisons in California to serve sentences of 25 years to life. Then, in September 2003, they were proven innocent on appeal and exonerated. But in a small press conference with about 20 journalists at San Francisco's Pacific News Service last December, Tennison and Goff showed little bitterness. Didn't they despair over losing the prime years of their youth, asked one journalist, himself just pushing 25? Tennison, now 31, leaned back in his chair and shook his head. "Most of my friends from that time are either locked up or six feet under, so it's hard to say what my life would have been like," said Tennison.

    It was a startingly admission, but surprisingly realistic. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, far outstripping runners-up Russia and Belarus. The U.S. houses more prisoners than China and India combined, according to the King's College of London International Centre for Prison Studies. This has not always been the case. Prison populations have quadrupled in the past 20 years in the U.S. (to around 2.1 million people currently).

    Of those incarcerated, 57% are under the age of 35. As welfare roles decline, prisons have become the primary institutional interface for more and more youth, informing everything from pop culture to worldview and life expectations. While commentators have sought to define today's young and restless as the Hip Hop Generation, a better moniker might soon be the Jail Generation.

    "Going to prison has become normalized," says Billy Wimsatt, a journalist turned activist whose 1994 underground book Bomb the Suburbs was one of the first and most eloquent articulations of the politics and worldview of what would later be termed the Hip Hop Generation. "Prison used to be the monster way in the corner, now it's taking over half the room, and it's getting its slime all over," ventures Wimsatt. In his second book, No More Prisons, Wimsatt leveraged his grass-roots populist appeal to focus attention on the anti-prison movement. His path exemplifies the growing convergence between mainstream hip hop and an urban lifestyle that is deeply damaged by increased incarceration rates.

    "Going to prison has a variety of negative effects," says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a New York-based prison analysis and advocacy group. "It hurts employment prospects, it breaks up families, and the high degree of mobility creates a population that has fewer legitimate connections to the community." Although juvenile poverty rates have steadily declined, the percentage of children raised in single parent homes has risen from 12% in 1970 to 28% in 1998. Although it is unclear how large a role increased prison populations play in this phenomenon, the increase has been most marked among those populations that have high incarceration rates. In 2000, only 38% of black children were being raised in two-parent homes. "Think of the number of kids who can only talk to their parents through collect phones or class trips upstate. Prison fosters a culture which people bring out into their world," Wimsatt laments.

    If so many young people are growing up in prison, what exactly are they being taught?

    "In prison, you learn to talk less, listen more, and observe - and you learn patience," says Eddy Zheng from a pay phone in Solano State Prison in Vacaville, CA. In 1982, when he was 12 years old, Zheng came to America from Canton, China, with his family. His parents worked full time - "my Dad worked at McDonalds; all he memorized was how to say 'mayonaise, lettuce, tomatoes.'" Zheng didn't adjust well. In 1986 he was convicted of kidnapping with intent to commit robbery, and was charged as an adult at the age of 16. "I grew up in prison," admits Zheng. Still learning English when he was admitted, Zheng took ESL classes and got his GED, and then went on to receive an Associate Degree of Arts through extension classes at San Quentin State Prison (he has since been relocated to Solano State). He plans on starting a youth guidance center for new immigrants when he is released. Zheng realizes his story is unusual and praises the "huge support from family and friends beyond the community of incarceration" that have helped him make the most of his time in prison.

    For many, prison is nothing but lost time. "You don't learn nothing in prison," says Darrell Anthony, 24, over the phone from his house on Chicago's Southside. Anthony (name changed to protect anonymity) is on house arrest while he awaits a court date later this month. "You might learn how to break a new crime, or a card trick, but that's about it." Anthony was arrested in 2001 for drug possession, and served 19 months in Statesville Prison, IL. Released in May 2003, he was arrested for narcotics possession again in August 2003. With legitimate job prospects hampered by a felony record, many ex-convicts return to old hustles to survive. "If you ain't got no job, you ain't got no life," says Anthony. His story is not unusual: 66% of prisoners return to prison within three years of their release.

    The dramatic increase in prisoners has deeply affected the poor, urban, and black and latino communities that have long been the life force of the Hip Hop Generation. One in three black men and one in six Latino men will go to prison at some point in their lives, compared to one in 23 white men, and 64% of prisoners are minorities. In his 2002 book The Hip Hop Generation, Bakari Kitwana reserved the term for African-Americans born between 1965 and 1984, dismissing Generation X as applicable only for whites.

    But even though incarceration disproportionally affects poor, minority neighborhoods, with Hip Hop as its publicity machine, criminal justice issues could find an audience beyond the communities directly impacted. Russell Simmons, the music producer cum media mogul cum patriarch of establishment hip hop culture allows that since 80% of hip hop listeners are white, the Hip Hop Generation applies to all those who "sympathize with the plight of the poor."

    Courting the Jail Vote
    Although it flies in the face of two decades of political orthodoxy showing that "tough on crime" stances are ballot box winners, appeals to the Hip Hop Generation on criminal justice issues could provide an untapped vote block for politicians willing to make the effort. Reverend Al Sharpton has hailed the Hip Hop Generation's tremendous swing vote power, and the Democratic National Committee has begun to enlist popular hip hop artists as headliners at fundraising dinners. But organizers agree that unless pleas to the Hip Hop Generation are centered around specific issues, they will fail to attract a population that is suspicious of electoral politics.

    Efforts to create a mobilized Jail Generation may find some unlikely allies. Soaring budget deficits are forcing states to reconsider their prison budgets and traditional "tough on crime" politics. Public opinion polls also show support for decreased spending on prisons. A 2003 comprehensive statewide poll by the California Public Policy Institute, a non-partisan research organization, found that prisons and corrections was the only area of government for which a majority of respondents (55%) supported a decrease in spending.

    "In 1994, at the height of 'tough on crime‚' you had Newt Gingrich, the Federal Crime Bill, and three strikes in California," says Franklyn Zimring, Berkeley Law Professor and criminal justice specialist, "there are few people who are nostalgic for that time."

    In the past, anti-prison activists have had few allies in government, and so have fought hard to win small concessions. In 2002, The Prison Moratorium Project, a New York based outfit with chapters in Minneapolis and San Francisco, partnered with the Justice for Youth Coalition to block a proposed plan to build 200 new juvenile detention beds, and removed $53 million from the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice's budget. Groups of youth lobbied aggressively against the proposed expansion in Albany, the state capital, and at city council meetings. Prison activists welcome progressive prison policy reforms, regardless of the motivation. "We're against building more prisons because we think it's racist and targets the powerless," says Raybblin Vargas, campaign director for the Prison Moratorium Project, "they (politicians) are against it because of all the legal problems, and the costs and headaches - but whatever it takes."

    Many activists remain wary. "It's still not a question of how we care about people, its about state budgets," says Dorsie Nunn, director of All of Us or None, an Oakland, CA, based advocacy and support organization for former prisoners. For Nunn, waiting for a change in budget priorities is less important than building solidarity among the 1,600 prisoners who are released nationwide everyday. "One in three African-American men going to prison is serious," says Nunn, "but (the anti-prison movement) will be real effective when one in three African-American men start saying that ****."

    It's probably too late for J.J. Tennison's childhood friends, but you can bet there's a new set of young men on the same street corners who might soon be telling their own prison stories. There may be many more jailed generations to come.

    `````````````````````````````````````````````````` `````````
    AMERICA (My Country 'tis of Thee- Revised Version)
    My county 'tis of thee,
    Sweet land of prison cells,
    Of thee I sing
    Land where the Indians died!
    Land of our racial pride,
    From every mountainside
    Let incarceration ring!
    Our fathers' God, to Thee,
    Author of wasted ecology,
    To Thee we sing
    Long may our land be bright
    By the prison's outside night lights,
    Protect us by Thy might,
    With plenty of prison walls throughout our land!
  2. 26 Comments

  3. by   canoehead
    So what's the point you are trying to make?
  4. by   NurseHardee
    There's too many jails and prisoners in the US. Something about our society is way out of wack. NH

    Quote from canoehead
    So what's the point you are trying to make?
  5. by   FROGGYLEGS
    I don't think I follow either.

    What would you suggest?
  6. by   teeituptom
    Im confused

    are you saying we need to put less in jail


    have more on death row
  7. by   elkpark
    Another effect of our crazed over-incarceration of poor and minority youth that wasn't mentioned in the article -- many states have laws that state that, if you are convicted of a felony, you lose your right to vote FOREVER. Long after you've served your time and supposedly "paid your debt to society" (not that I disagree with that concept -- but the point is supposed to be that, once you finish your sentence/probation, you HAVE paid your debt), however well you've rehabilitated yourself (you have to do it yourself, 'cause the system certainly isn't going to help with that), however much you may have turned your life around and become a model citizen, you still CAN'T VOTE EVER AGAIN FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

    The criminal codes and incarceration practices in this country mean that large percentages of poor and minority citizens are being permanently disenfranchised. So much for democracy, huh????
  8. by   SharonH, RN
    Quote from elkpark

    The criminal codes and incarceration practices in this country mean that large percentages of poor and minority citizens are being permanently disenfranchised. So much for democracy, huh????

    Ah but gee, it's only the poor and minorities. Who cares if they are disenfranchised? And besides, it's a good policy. Look at how effective it was in Florida in 2000. Heck, since there weren't enough people who had really been in prison or who had lost their right to vote, they just added people to the list who didn't belong there. It worked like a charm.
  9. by   VivaLasViejas
    Sharon---Love your signature line!! Good one!! :chuckle
  10. by   2ndCareerRN
    Look at how effective it was in Florida in 2000. Heck, since there weren't enough people who had really been in prison or who had lost their right to vote, they just added people to the list who didn't belong there. It worked like a charm.
    Feel free to back that up with some cold, hard facts. Are do you believe all innuendos, and inane mutterings you hear?

    I would love to read more of your postings, if you could just come up with facts....that is all it takes.

  11. by   donmurray
    "Florida voters excluded" turned up these examples, there are hundreds more if you look.

    THE GREAT FLORIDA EX-CON GAME How the ?felon? voter-purge was itself felonious
    Harper's Magazine
    Friday, March 1, 2002
    by Greg Palast

    In November the U.S. media, lost in patriotic reverie, dressed up the Florida recount as a victory for President Bush. But however one reads the ballots, Bush's win would certainly have been jeopardized had not some Floridians been barred from casting ballots at all. Between May 1999 and Election Day 2000, two Florida secretaries of state - Sandra Mortham and Katherine Harris, both protégées of Governor Jeb Bush- ordered 57,700 "ex-felons," who are prohibited from voting by state law, to be removed from voter rolls. (In the thirty-five states where former felons can vote, roughly 90 percent vote Democratic.) A portion of the list, which was compiled for Florida by DBT Online, can be seen for the first time here; DBT, a company now owned by ChoicePoint of Atlanta, was paid $4.3 million for its work, replacing a firm that charged $5,700 per year for the same service. If the hope was that DBT would enable Florida to exclude more voters, then the state appears to have spent its money wisely.

    Click here to view full size

    Two of these "scrub lists," as officials called them, were distributed to counties in the months before the election with orders to remove the voters named. Together the lists comprised nearly 1 percent of Florida?s electorate and nearly 3 percent of its African-American voters. Most of the voters (such as "David Butler," (1); a name that appears 77 times in Florida phone books) were selected because their name, gender, birthdate and race matched - or nearly matched - one of the tens of millions of ex-felons in the United States. Neither DBT nor the state conducted any further research to verify the matches. DBT, which frequently is hired by the F.B.I. to conduct manhunts, originally proposed using address histories and financial records to confirm the names, but the state declined the cross-checks. In Harris?s elections office files, next to DBT?s sophisticated verification plan, there is a hand-written note: ?DON?T NEED.?

    Thomas Alvin Cooper (2), twenty-eight, was flagged because of a crime for which he will be convicted in the year 2007. According to Florida?s elections division, this intrepid time-traveler will cover his tracks by moving to Ohio, adding a middle name, and changing his race. Harper's found 325 names on the list with conviction dates in the future, a fact that did not escape Department of Elections workers, who, in June 2000 emails headed, ?Future Conviction Dates," termed the discovery, "bad news.? Rather than release this whacky data to skeptical counties, Janet Mudrow, state liaison to DBT, suggested that ?blanks would be preferable in these cases." (Harper's counted 4,917 blank conviction dates.) The one county that checked each of the 694 names on its local list could verify only 34 as actual felony convicts. Some counties defied Harris' directives; Madison County's elections supervisor Linda Howell refused the purge list after she found her own name on it.

    Rev. Willie Dixon (3), seventy, was guilty of a crime in his youth; but one phone call would have told the state that it had already pardoned Dixon and restored his right to vote. On behalf of Dixon and other excluded voters, the NAACP in January 2001 sued Florida and Harris, after finding that African-Americans?who account for 13 percent of Florida's electorate and 46 percent of U.S. felony convictions ?were four times as likely as whites to be incorrectly singled out under the state's methodology. After the election, Harris and her elections chief Clay Roberts, testified under oath that verifying the lists was solely the work of county supervisors. But the Florida-DBT contract (marked "Secret" and ?Confidential?) holds DBT responsible for ?manual verification using telephone calls.? in fact, with the state?s blessing, DBT did not call a single felon. When I asked Roberts about the contract during an interview for BBC television, Roberts ripped off his microphone, ran into his office, locked the door, and called in state troopers to remove us.

    Johnny Jackson Jr. (4), thirty-two, has never been to Texas, and his mother swears he never had the middle name ?Fitzgerald.? Neither is there evidence that John Fitzgerald Jackson, felon of Texas, has ever left the Lone Star State. But even if they were the same man, removing him from Florida?s voter rolls is an unconstitutional act. Texas is among the thirty five states where ex-felons are permitted to vote, and the "full faith and credit" clause of the U.S. Constitution forbids states to revoke any civil rights that a citizen has been granted by another state; in fact, the Florida Supreme Court had twice ordered the state not to do so, just nine months before the voter purge. Nevertheless, at least 2,873 voters were wrongly removed, a purge authorized by a September 18, 2000 letter to counties from Governor Bush's clemency office. On February 23, 2001, days after the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights began investigating the matters, Bush's office issued a new letter allowing these persons to vote; no copies of the earlier letter could be found in the clemency office or on its computers.

    Wallace McDonald (5), sixty-four, lost his right to vote in 2000, though his sole run-in with the law was a misdemeanor in 1959. (He fell asleep on a bus-stop bench.) Of the "matches' on these lists, the civil-rights commission estimated that at least 14 percent - or 8,000 voters, nearly 15 times Bush's official margin of victory - were false. DBT claims it warned officials "a significant number of people who were not a felon would be included on the list"; but the state, the company now says, "wanted there to be more names than were actually verified." Last May, Florida's legislature barred Harris from using outside firms to build the purge list and ordered her to seek guidance from county elections officials. In defiance, Harris has rebuffed the counties and hired another firm, just in time for Jeb Bush's reelection fight this fall.


    Special thanks to Fredda Weinberg for cracking the Florida computer files and crunching the numbers as well as to all the volunteer researchers who contributed to this investigative effort.

    Read the complete and latest material on the ethnic purge that fixed the election in Palast's new book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, out this week from Pluto Press.

    At www.GregPalast.com you can read and subscribe to Greg Palast's London Observer columns and view his reports for BBC Television's Newsnight.

    On Februrary 25, Plume/Penguin USA will release the new, expanded American edition of Greg Palast's New York Times bestseller The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: An Investigative Reporter Exposes the Truth About Globalization, Corporate Cons and High-Finance Fraudsters. You can order the book via the Greg Palast store by clicking here.
  12. by   nekhismom
    This isn't really news, Hardee. People close to the minority communities have been saying this for YEARS. We have known for a long time the things that this article states. But like Sharon says, it has been ignored, mainly because it's just the "poor and minority" citizens who are effected. SO a blind eye has been turned on this for a while now.
  13. by   SharonH, RN
    Quote from 2ndCareerRN
    Feel free to back that up with some cold, hard facts. Are do you believe all innuendos, and inane mutterings you hear?

    I would love to read more of your postings, if you could just come up with facts....that is all it takes.


    Bob, are you kidding me? Innuendos and mutterings? Dear, this has already been settled. It happened. Thousands of mostly African-American voters were unjustly removed from the voter rolls just in time for the 2000 election.


    Excerpt: The Commission also flagged the removal of non-felons from the voter registration rolls on the basis of unreliable information collected during a sweeping, state-sponsored felony purge.


    Excerpt:the report details how deliberate measures by state election officials under their direction resulted in thousands of citizens being denied the right to vote. This was particularly evident in the state's "purge" of voter registration lists for alleged felons, which resulted in "the inexcusable and patently unjust removal of disproportionate numbers of African Americans from Florida's voter registration rolls," according to the report......The commission found that Republican officials encouraged private contractor DataBase Technologies (DBT), hired to compile a list of voters who had committed felonies in other states, to employ an "error-laden strategy," which state officials knew would result in falsely identifying eligible voters as felons. According to a DBT senior vice president, the company warned election officials that a search based simply on matching names and dates of birth would result in large numbers of "false positives."

    In fact, that is what state officials wanted. In a March 1999 e-mail message to DBT officials who warned him about probable mistakes, Emmett "Bucky" Mitchell--who headed the state purge effort--said, "Obviously, we want to capture more names that possibly aren't matches and let the [county elections] supervisors make a final determination rather than exclude certain matches altogether." Clayton Roberts, the head of the state's election division, confirmed that this was the state's policy in an interview with the Washington Post: "The decision was made to do the match in such a way as not to be terribly strict on the name."


    Excerpt:ChoicePoint Vice President Martin Fagan has admitted that at least 8,000 names were incorrectly listed in this fashion when the company passed on a list given by the state of Texas, these 8,000 names were removed prior to the election. Fagan has described the error as a "minor glitch". ChoicePoint, as a matter of policy, does not verify the accuracy of its data and argues that it is the user's responsibility to verify accuracy.

    On April 17, 2000, at a special Congressional hearing in Atlanta, ChoicePoint Vice-President James Lee testified that Florida had ordered DBT to add to the list voters who matched 80% of an ineligible voter's name; middle initials and suffixes were to be dropped, while nicknames and aliases were added. In addition, names were considered reversible, for example; Clarence Thomas could be added in place of Thomas Clarence. Lee opened his testimony by noting that ChoicePoint intended to get out of the voter purge industry. Then, on February 16, 2001, DBT Senior Vice-President George Bruder testified before the US Civil Rights Commission that the company had misinformed the Florida Supervisors of Elections regarding the usage of race in compiling the list.

    The actual report

    One more

    Excerpt: On September 3, 2002, a final settlement of a lawsuit brought by the NAACP, People for the American Way, and other civil rights groups against state and local elections officials and agencies was reached.The terms of the settlement include, among other provisions:Restoration of the names of voters who were improperly removed from the voter lists.

    I know you are going to come up with some reason why you don't believe it. Frankly I don't care.
  14. by   SharonH, RN
    Quote from donmurray
    "Florida voters excluded" turned up these examples, there are hundreds more if you look.

    Thanks for posting the info don.