Voices from the inside out: Black prison lives matter

August 28, 2020

From the September-October 2020 issue of News & Letters

by Robert Taliaferro

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 sparked an overdue worldwide movement against racism and injustice. In sports, politics and television, the concept of Black lives actually mattering for something other than fodder for growing prison populations has become the predominant theme of American and international consciousness.

However, Black lives have always mattered. It is sad that only after tragedies do people in all walks of life express a realization of this fundamental concept. Equally sad is when a tragedy inspires others to compound it by turning a necessary movement into a forum to espouse their personal agendas geared towards furthering discord or hatred in the political sphere or within the movement itself.


It is heartening to see the attacks on systemic racism and inequality sustained as we go into the long summer months since Floyd’s murder. Only the former system of apartheid in South Africa seemed to gain as much worldwide attention.

Yet concepts of apartheid were not limited to South Africa. They have existed in the U.S. since its founding, not only toward Black folks but Native Americans as well. Upon the release of Nelson Mandela from his incarceration in South Africa, one of the older lifers in a Wisconsin prison shook his head in disgust as he watched all the celebrations, noting, “Hell, we have apartheid right here in this country and no one says a damn thing.”

Concepts of apartheid are manifested in a variety of ways in the U.S. The most obvious is in the disproportionate treatment that people of color, particularly Blacks, receive in the criminal justice system. It starts with the initial police contact currently under scrutiny due to the deaths of Floyd and others, and continues through every phase of the criminal justice process. This led to the U.S. being the leader in the mass incarceration of its citizens, especially if they are people of color.

In Wisconsin, for instance, 31 of the state’s 56 Black neighborhoods are prisons or jails, mostly located in rural areas, creating a form of prison population gerrymander, especially as those numbers reflect on representative populations regarding people of color. Not surprisingly, for decades Wisconsin has been number one in the nation in the per capita incarceration of Blacks and Native Americans.


Additionally, though Blacks make up a very small minority (9-12%) of the state’s population, according to recent statistics by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, 42% of its prison population is Black with a disproportionate number housed in its secure maximum facilities. Blacks make up an average of 52.8% of max prisons in the state with the majority of Black prisoners incarcerated in the most secure facilities—61% and 59% respectively in the State’s two walled facilities at Green Bay and Waupun, and 55% in its former Supermax facility in Boscobel, as opposed to medium facilities (only 39.1% are occupied by Black prisoners) or minimums and work centers (37.5% are Black prisoners).

Traditionally, people of color in Wisconsin, and around the country, also get disproportionately longer prison terms, spending much more time in prison than White prisoners who commit the same crimes. This is another attribute of America’s form of apartheid.

Prisons, along with disproportionate incarceration, are forms of social, economic and cultural death for Black communities, especially when the majority of those prisoners are either nonviolent offenders, or prisoners who have been incarcerated disproportionately longer than many of their White counterparts.

Mass incarceration, and disproportionate treatment by all aspects of the Prison Industrial Complex, is a cultural knee on the neck of the Black community as a whole.

If Black lives are going to continue to matter in the U.S., then change must happen at every level of a racial discussion, not only within Black communities back in the world, but within the more numerous Black communities that are confined.

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