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Have You Been to Prison Lately?

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When the US Supreme Court recently ruled that portions of the Voting Rights Act are basically obsolete, it seemed to suggest that our country's racist past is just that -- in the past. Referring to both Philadelphia, Mississippi, and Selma, Alabama, where on the eve of the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, racial violence by whites ruled the day, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that "[t]oday both of those towns are governed by African-American mayors."

As is usually the case in questions of racial injustice, it's bigger than that. Many of us who work in prisoner reentry, as soon as we heard the ruling, responded reflexively -- to Chief Justice Roberts or to no one in particular -- "Have you been to prison lately?"

The face of the American prisoner is most typically a face of color. More than 60 percent of the people in prison are racial and ethnic minorities. The idea that a civil rights law that has been so pivotal to equality and freedom in this country is no longer relevant or necessary impels us to visit, yet again, the statistics of prison, if not prison itself.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and there are more African-Americans in the corrections system today (prison, probation, or parole) than were enslaved in 1850. For black men in their 30s, one in every 10 is in prison or jail. African-Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated in this country. Black men are imprisoned at six times the rate of white men, and three times the rate of Latino men.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. These odds become devastatingly higher when race is considered in combination with education levels: for young African-American men with no high school degree, it's estimated that their likelihood of prison time is nearly two of every three -- which is about five times the rate of white high school dropouts.

Any discussion of disproportionate rates of incarceration necessarily includes consideration of the "war on drugs." Simply put, the rate of involvement with illegal substances and the incarceration rate for illegal substances are conversely related: while it's estimated that about five times as many whites are using drugs as African-Americans, fully two-thirds of all persons who are serving prison sentences for drug offenses are people of color.

All of this is directly relevant to considerations of the racialization of voting rights. Nationally, approximately 5.85 million American citizens are prohibited from voting due to their felony convictions. Felony disenfranchisement, a constitutional practice, varies from state to state and in many cases is a lifetime ban.

Of course, because incarceration hugely disproportionately impacts African-Americans, so do the voter laws that prohibit voting for people who have had felony convictions. One in 13 African-Americans are unable to vote on this basis; when considering males only, the stats of course are steeper, with 13 percent of African-American men denied their right to vote because of felony backgrounds. One recent analysis showed that in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than one in five African-Americans had lost their voting rights due to felony convictions.

The more things change, the more they stay the same... In this case, the more voting rights of African-Americans seem to no longer need the bolstering and protection of the seminal civil rights law, the more they are being suppressed in other ways.

In 1963, 100 years after the Battle of Gettysburg and the Emancipation Proclamation, our (white) president lamented that black Americans remained "in bondage to the color of [their] skin." In 2013, 150 years after, our (black) president, commenting on black men whose lives had spiraled downward, said "there but for the grace of God go I... I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family." We would add, he might have been denied, for life, the right to vote.