Chicago Teachers Strike, September 10, 2012. photo by Lavon Nicole Pettis via Facebook.
Here’s a story: For the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, which became the home of the Miracle on Ice, where the United States finally beat the U.S.S.R. in hockey to win the gold medal, the Olympic village was built a few miles away in Saranac Lake. Rumor or legend has it, that given the opportunity to turn the Olympic Village into either a University or a prison, post Olympics, that the community chose a prison – for the jobs, presumably. This is 1980, remember, and the War on Drugs has not yet been declared. Indeed, it is two years before that war is declared and a few more before the crack epidemic hits the streets of urban America. Before the Rockefeller Drug laws begins carting young men (mostly from the streets of New York) to face long prison terms over what is often no more than possession for personal use. By the time I land in New York in 1987, we know when brothers say they were gone ‘upstate’ for a minute, that is code for having done a bid. By the time Notorious B.I.G. releases his first album ‘Ready to Die’ in 1994, most black New York boys recognize the album’s early reference to C-76, a cellblock on Riker’s Island.
At one point, New York State boasts more prisons per capita than any other state in the union. The absurdity of the Rockefeller Drug Laws having been brought to bear, the NY prison population has actually fallen by about 20 percent in recent years, but for an entire generation of young men, the damage has been done. Further, this type of story is not germane to New York State. It has been a reality throughout the United States – skyrocketing prison populations between the 1970s and now, such that we outstrip every other developed country in the world (by far) in the percentage of our population incarcerated. The vast majority are Black and Latino. For quite a while, many states decided how many new hospital beds needed to be built, how many new hospitals, based on standardized test scores from 3rd grade, or 8th grade or 5th grade, or something equally preposterous. In an age of prison explosion and the privatization thereof, our state apparatuses were planning, not on how to keep their youth out of jail, but on how to house them when they got there.
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