Jim Crow: Alive and Well in U.S. Prisons

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Illustration by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

Most African-American professionals in the 21st century lack the ability to grasp how miserable it was living in a Separate-But-Equal world where the color of their skin connoted incompetence.

In the era of de jure segregation, members of W.E.B. Du Bois’ vaunted “Talented Tenth” were believed to be not as smart as they perceived themselves to be, and not to be taken seriously by white folks with good sense.  Generations of intellectuals never overcame the weight of racial prejudice that stood against them.

Against this backdrop from the days of de jure segregation, allow me to present a cohort of convicts who are the penitentiary version of De Bois’ Talented Tenth.

While “convict” as a label is the product of imprisonment rather than an immutable characteristic, this status produces effects similar to having black skin, circa 1930, when combined with education and intellect. Intellectual convicts—many of whom (like me) were ignoramuses when they entered the prison system—are not lauded for overcoming their circumstances and deficiencies.

Nor are they touted as being worthy of emulation.

Instead, they are typically maligned by their keepers, and frequently rejected by those who are confined amongst them.  At the same time, they are given short shrift by many community activists.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon.

The Keepers

 “Look at the prison officials, especially the guards,” former prisoner Victor F. Nelson recalls a fellow prisoner saying in his 1936 book Prison Days and Nights.

Most of them never had an education or anything…But he gets a job here, and a little authority, and first thing you know, he’s running around with a chip on his shoulder, as if he could lick [heavyweight prizefighter Jack] Dempsey.

Had Nelson been African American, rather than a Swedish immigrant, and if he had been aware of Du Bois’ Talented Tenth concept, he would have also considered guards to be amongst those who had the greatest disdain and antipathy for the education, intellect, and success of the Talented Tenth.

I can attest that Jim Crow sentiments have not disappeared from the American penal system.

I have been described in the media as “the picture of reform,” but let me assure you, correctional officers and prison administrators see nothing of the sort.

Earning a college degree through my own means and developing the acumen to publish legal commentaries is instead perceived as evidence of my arrogance, not of my reform. In fact, the box for “arrogant” has been checked by correctional counselors who have input my personal characteristics into Washington State’s Department of Corrections (DOC) computerized risk assessment instrument.

That, to me, underlines prison officials’ sense of insecurity. To them, it appears, “arrogance” is applicable to individuals in the system whose accomplishments or intellect engenders feelings of inferiority in the correctional psyche.

It strikes me as the same dynamic which makes white people living below the Mason-Dixon Line want to lynch “uppity Negros” for supposedly putting on airs.

Through this funhouse mirror everything that a convict does to hone his intellect and abilities in order to increase his likelihood of successfully transitioning into society is distorted—and can even be provocative—given the response it can produce from guards and administrators.

I have felt such wrath when I was deemed to be “talking down” to a unit supervisor merely by being assertive, knowledgeable and articulate when stating my position in response to his questioning about why I chose to write an official complaint about his practices, as opposed to resolving the matter informally.

In other words, I failed to show proper deference in the face of authority. As is often the case, it did not end well.

In this instance, my superior used the tried and true method for regaining a sense of control that has been undermined by the unwelcome sense of inferiority: He shunted me into solitary confinement and I stayed there for the next several weeks.

Convicts who possess qualities and attain accomplishments that are valued in society learn that it is prudent to avoid such encounters.

The Kept

Victor Nelson observed the following:

The conversations of the average convict are full of destructive criticism, cheap cynicism, wishfulness and self-pity … Unless [something] threatens his comfort, safety or vanity, or promises to ameliorate or shorten his term in prison, he is distinctly uninterested. The discussion of ideas for the sake of arriving at truth, or acquiring knowledge, has no zest for him.

Little has changed since the 1930s.

Research tell us that the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” shunts people out of the educational system and disrupts individuals’ potential for intellectual progress.

But statistics fail to illuminate that a byproduct of this collective ignorance is the formation of legions of prisoners across the nation who harbor disdain for those in their midst whose intelligence shines within this darkness.

To such minds, black prisoners who use proper English in grammatically correct sentences and who love to read must think they are better than the rest of the brothas in captivity.

Worse yet, in this world ignorance is the fuel for violence, not bliss.

Several years ago, my new cellmate became enraged one evening over my diction and bibliophilic propensities and then, for the next five hours, as I have written elsewhere, “went from laughing hysterically to pacing back and forth and sobbing to becoming irrationally angry, and then leaning in on [me] and getting into [my] personal space.”

His reaction seems crazy, I know.

Yet such men are often troubled by prisoners who have altered the trajectory of their lives by being tenacious and intellectually curious, and who have the forbearance, perseverance, and intelligence to succeed upon being freed in spite of countless barriers to successfully reintegrating into society.

Ridiculing, ostracizing, and even assaulting prisoners who exhibit qualities that augur well has psychological value, so it seems.

Namely, it enables the vacuous majority of prisoners to subsume the uncomfortable, unbidden sense of self-contempt that can rise when exemplars of intellect and grit cause them to reflect upon their character deficiencies and lack of agency.

Herein lies the soul of the bygone hater that used to cry out “Sellout!” and “House Nigga!” to young Negros who devoted themselves to scholarly pursuits and upward mobility as opposed to smoking reefer and harmonizing with their buddies on the street corner. It is the product of envy conjoined with ignorance, and it is so pernicious in many prisons that it makes intellectual pursuits—and those who pursue them—worthy of animus.

 The Allies

These underlying beliefs remain embedded deep within the subconscious of many black professionals.

I have seen the effects when social justice advocates and criminal justice reformers arrive to visit with groups of convicts with the aim of gaining insight from those who are most impacted by benighted policies and practices.

The Black Prisoners’ Caucus was often the setting. Time and again, when members of the Caucus met with policymakers, lawyers and professors to discuss subjects ranging from reducing recidivism to extending parole eligibility, the outsiders with black complexions stubbornly resisted heeding our advice in spite of our intellect, education, common sense, or experience.

Fighting for equality is one thing. Yet perceiving convicts as equals and considering our suggestions with an open mind seems to be a bridge too far—for the black folks especially.

I have felt the frustration of dealing with this prejudice when explaining my legal theories to attorneys with organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. No matter the listener’s legal training and passion for undoing injustice—my words are suspect. The fact that law journals have published my legal commentaries and the Washington Court of Appeals has adopted my legal analysis lends me no credibility.

My status ultimately connotes incompetence, arrogance or some other nonsense.

These experiences have convinced me that my theory on the penitentiary’s Talented Tenth has validity.

Jeremiah Bourgois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

At the end of the day, I am little more than a convict. This status produces effects akin to black skin circa 1930. I truly appreciate that you took the time to read this column—since my life is defined by being maligned by my keepers, facing rejection from those confined, and getting short shrift from activists despite my education and intellect.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to The Crime Report, and a recent graduate of Adams State University, where he earned an interdisciplinary degree in criminology and legal studies. Since 1992, he has been confined in Washington State for crimes that he committed at the age of 14. He is currently petitioning for release. Readers who wish to support him are invited to sign up here. He welcomes comments.

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