Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (The New Press 2010)
When I was a wandering recent law graduate, I found myself washed up in the murky bayous of New Orleans, working at an under-resourced, over-stressed Capital defence law firm.
After a few weeks of preparing case work at my desk, I make my first trip to speak to our clients based at Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known by the its ominous name of Angola Prison. The prison is called Angola because it is located on a former slave plantation that was itself called Angola due to many of the slaves were brought from Angola in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in America, with Louisiana holding the highest incarceration rate in the country with the highest incarceration rate in world. Stepping onto the grounds of the prison is a testament to the ease with which the linearity of time can rupture. I arrive in 2012 but it could so easily have been 1812 or 1712. Walking to the offices where I will speak to my clients, I am greeted by scenes of 15 or 20 black inmates working in the fields whilst one white guard oversees them on horseback, shotgun always brandished in the right hand.
Once I escape this haunting theatre hidden in the swamp waters of Louisiana, what I have been confronted with at Angola needs explaining. How does such an institution survive in the legally post-racial society that the USA claims to be? Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow becomes the text that I immerse myself in. Alexander draws a direct line from plantation slavery, to Jim Crow segregation to the temples of human warehousing that serve as America’s prisons today, disproportionally populated by black bodies, giving the context through which Louisiana’s blood-soaked history can be contained. After our final meeting, I leave my copy of the book on the table for my client Antoine, a jovial 51 year-old black man still hoping to get the death row conviction he received when he was 23 overturned to a life sentence (no parole). A few months later, I receive a letter in London from Antoine. It opens by saying “this book is my story.”
Kojo Koram, Birkbeck College, University of London
When I was a kid I did some of my growing up in Florida. I remember that quite often alongside the two-lane highways there would be crews of prisoners cutting the grass with something like sythes and picking up and “bagging” debris discarded from passing autos. There were always be several big tall, always white guards carrying shotguns with the butts resting on their legs or on the backs of the huge horses upon which they sat. I remember that it was always sunny and hot. The men seemed to be working hard, while the guards did not. The guards were always wearing hats, but the prisoners never were. I remember that the guards wore what appeared to be tailored, well-pressed uniforms, while the prisoners were dressed like today’s homeless people. Of course, the guards were all white. I’m hazy on the following point, but I think I remember that the work-crew was a black-and-white mixed together. I wonder if this suggests that things, e.g., segregation in prisons, are worse now than they were in 1958