Review: Broken On All Sides: Race, Mass Incarceration, & New Visions For Criminal Justice In The US by John Leslie In Philadelphia

10/04/2013 by socialistfight

Broken On All Sides, a film by Philadelphia community activist Matthew Pillischer, is a powerful indictment of the prison industrial complex. The United States has 5% of the world’s population and incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners. But why is this?

Institutionalized racism is at the root of the mass incarceration of millions in this country. Pillischer used interviews with academics, activists, religious communities, a former prisoner and a former Mayor of Philadelphia, John Street, to illustrate the origins of this set-up and how it operates.

The so-called war on drugs, which was conceived by the Reagan administration, is responsible for the huge increase in prisoner population over the last 30 years. While there has been no significant increase in the crime rate, the number of prisoners has ballooned to more than 2 million. This is more a symptom of racial politics than of any real threat to society.

African-Americans make up 12.4% of the US population but are more than 38% of the total prison population. Incarceration rates are out of proportion for Latins as well. Michelle Alexander, author of the book, the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, says in an interview in the film:

People who are living in ghetto communities today experience tremendous frustration, because not only are they being targeted in clearly biased ways by law enforcement, in countless ways they experience the discrimination, and often brutality of our criminal justice system.

More than 60% of the more than 700,000 prisoners serving time in local jails in the United States have not been convicted of a crime. They are awaiting trial and are not able to make bail because of poverty. This is on top of the more than 2.2 million (2010) prisoners in state and federal prisons and the 4,933,667 adults (2009) either on probation or parole. In all, more than 7 million adults are under some form of incarceration or correctional control (prison, jail, probation or parole) in the US. There were an additional 70,792 youth in “juvenile detention” in 2010.

Seventy five% of these prisoners are charged with property crimes, drug offenses or other nonviolent crimes. Prisoners are kept in dirty, overcrowded, conditions and separated from their families. Prisoners often face the loss of their jobs while awaiting trial. Families are damaged because of the financial strain placed on them. Additionally, there is a huge burden placed on the taxpayer; jails cost local governments more than $9 Billion annually. Some New Jersey counties have percentages of prisoners awaiting trial in local jails that are above the national average. In Philadelphia, the percentage of prisoners in the county system, who are considered “pre-trial,” is about 57 percent. The Black and Hispanic prisoner population in Philadelphia County is more than 80 percent.

The New Jim Crow is a conscious policy by a white racist ruling class to criminalize African-Americans, while preserving the fiction that racial discrimination died with the end of formal segregation. The “war on drugs” and the “tough on crime” rhetoric of politicians keeps racial politics alive by appealing to the racist attitudes and prejudices of whites, all the while holding up the pretence of a colour-blind society. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 70% of prisoners in the US are non-white. The obvious racial bias of the system- from racial profiling at the street level to bail disparities in court – helps to fuel a system of mass incarceration of people of colour.

From the film:
We as a nation become blind, not so much to race, but to the existence of racial caste. We have become blind to the existence of a group of people who have become locked into a second-class status and become indifferent to their suffering.

Ex-offenders are plagued by high recidivism rates, which are reinforced by patterns of racial discrimination and lack of educational opportunities both in the community and in prison. States have cut vocational training in prison systems just as they have cut school budgets.

According to Michelle Alexander, “So many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again once you have been branded a felon.” Ex-prisoners also quite often lose their right to vote, again reinforcing their second class status.

Addressing the problem of the prison industrial complex is an urgent task for progressive activists in the US. We can’t simply rely on moral appeals to politicians or lawsuits. The only way to break this system down is to build a mass social movement that links together communities, churches, organized labor and students around a program demanding justice, jobs, education funding and an immediate end to the war on drugs. A true defence of public education cannot be achieved without understanding that the prison system, a multi-billion dollar business, is draining the resources we need to rebuild our schools and educate youth.

The defence of our unions, and the living standards of working class people, cannot be waged without understanding the roots of the prison industrial complex in a predatory capitalist system that is incapable of creating living wage jobs and locks millions of unemployed workers away in a for-profit prison system. Stop and frisk and other racial profiling must be ended. Police must be held accountable for targeting communities of colour. The call for an end to mass incarceration, linked to a call for jobs at union wages for all workers, is a crucial demand for working people.

Good political documentaries don’t exist merely to inform us; They exist to move us to action. Broken On All Sides is just such a film. It’s difficult for me to say just how much I enjoyed this excellent, well constructed, film without giving too much of it away. I urge the reader to buy a copy of this film and use it as an organizing tool. Organize a showing in your church, school or union hall. If your community organization, school or union has the resources, host the filmmaker and organize a discussion of what can be done to end the New Jim Crow.

Copies of Broken On All Sides: Race, Mass Incarceration, & New Visions for Criminal Justice in the US can be bought from the web site, The web site also has ideas and suggestions on how to organize in your community. Contact the director, Matthew Pillischer, at brokenonallsides@gmail.comRebuild The Fourth International

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