When Marc Lamont Hill, a professor and activist who wants to abolish prisons, said that to me recently, I understood where he was coming from. Intellectually, at least. America's criminal justice system, with its machinelike orientation to conviction and incarceration, has grown so many tentacles that it tends to touch the lives of the people in communities of color who are not themselves up to anything shady. The sprawl of that system, and the economy based on it, mean that anyone in those communities can be treated like a suspected lawbreaker. It means that the immediate family members of a felon, for example, can be penalized by their proximity to them. And it means that calling the cops invites a whole lot of contact with the state that can quickly spiral in unintended ways.
It's that paradox that makes Hill, the author of Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond, want to abolish prisons altogether. I understand what he means, especially when you consider America's grim history of incarceration. Almost as soon as slavery ended in the United States, local and state governments found ways to funnel thousands of newly freed black folks into prisons. The period after Reconstruction saw the creation of a host of new crimes — changing employers without permission, vagrancy, not reporting to work on a weekend — that were ostensibly race-neutral but actually meant to ensnare black citizens. Most of us know that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but importantly, it leaves an exemption for servitude as "punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." Entire local economies in the post-slavery years —and some extant major American corporations — were built on this kind of convict labor.
[For more of this story, written by Gene Demby, go to http://www.npr.org/sections/co...ties-defined-by-them]