Police Brutality and the Role of Profit in Black Incarceration

Chima Williams Iheme

Introduction: Police Brutality in America Is Only the Tip of the Iceberg

Those who care about human rights have the duty to prevent crimes against humanity and the possibility of a genocide stemming from hate and racism. An overwhelming amount of data now shows that Black people in America are three times more likely to be killed by the police than White people. These data, even though true, could not have captured all the wrongful killings of Black people by the police, starting from the slavery period, the Jim Crow-and-lynching era, the Civil Rights Movement, and contemporary times. For many years, Black people in America (comprising 13 percent of the overall population) have complained bitterly about police brutality, but this has largely been ignored by the larger American community that does not experience this level of ruthlessness from the police.

The Trump Administration, with its racist mantra to “Make America Great Again,” has emboldened many unpatriotic Americans to unwittingly defend and shield the police from their brutality against Black people—by always blaming the victims for resisting arrest, being threatening, being criminals, and so on. This symbiotic relationship between the larger American community and the police is now brewing widespread destructive tensions in American society. The advent of the internet and the ubiquitous use of smartphones to record some incidents of police brutality have helped the world to understand the merit and truth in these age-old complaints against the police, which have now been chiseled in the slogan “Black Lives Matter.”

In May 2020, George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a White former police officer who used his knee to pin Floyd’s neck on the tarmac of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis for nearly nine minutes amid a global spectacle. This horrific execution was the straw that broke the camel’s back for a Black community which had witnessed incessant homicides by the police with little or no justice for the victims’ families. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death—as well as the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks by a White police officer less than three weeks afterward—there have been protests on the streets of America and even around the globe calling for serious police reforms. However, police brutality against Black people is just the tip of the problem. It is important to understand the several underlying factors that give rise to it in America, so that any agitations for reform will be targeted precisely at unearthing the taproots of police brutality instead of window-dressing the problem.

American Private Prisons Are the New-Age Slave Plantations

Black people in America encountered concepts of human rights for the first time under the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. This Amendment abolished “involuntary servitude”—except in the context of punishment. One of the aims of incarceration is to reform and rehabilitate the prisoner, and to achieve this, prisoners could be subjected to involuntary servitude. Sometime in the 1980s, the American government began privatizing prison management, ceding some of its jurisdiction to corporations. Prisons, whether managed by corporations or governments, are allowed to reform and rehabilitate their inmates by subjecting them to involuntary servitude with little or no pay. Viewed through the shareholder-primacy lens, corporations exist to primarily make profits for their shareholders.

Once prison management was partly ceded to corporations, the profit motive worsened the fate of Black people in America. The annual budget for prisons in America is roughly about $182 billion, which is more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of many countries. The stocks of the two leading multibillion-dollar prison corporations in America, namely, CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group, are traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Driven largely by profit-making, prison corporations use convict labor to carry out profitable transactions that further grow their stock values through labor for which little or nothing is paid, except for the low cost of feeding prisoners. This makes private prison owners in America comparable to the owners of the slave plantations who grew the value of their holdings through involuntary servitude and poor treatment of slaves. From the economic viewpoint, obtaining many prisoners guarantees a large revenue from the annual prison budget, as well as an increment of the prison labor size. In that case, the most profitable and attractive candidates for incarceration appear to be young Black people. This motive closely resembles the type that led early Europeans to invade the continent of Africa in the fifteenth century in search of young and energetic Black people who would work on American plantations until they were exhausted or dead. Therefore, to make possible the profits of involuntary servitude today, the Thirteenth Amendment only requires a trigger of the punishment clause, such that a wrongfully accused Black person could be arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned for long periods, becoming equivalent to money-making stocks for the prison owners, sometimes for the rest of their lives, echoing their forefathers’ experience in the slave plantations.

This could perhaps explain the motive behind the attitude of the police in the Central Park Five case and similar incidents in which Black people were falsely accused of serious crimes and imprisoned for life or lengthy terms before they were released on grounds of innocence—even when the police knew of their innocence ab initio but refused to disclose the exonerating evidence to the defense attorneys.

It also seems that American police largely turn to Black people whenever they desperately need scapegoats to appease the public for publicized heinous crimes. For instance, in 1944, George Stinney, a fifteen-year-old Black boy, was wrongfully accused of murdering two little girls and dumping their bodies in a ditch in South Carolina. In what seemed like a kangaroo trial, he was sentenced to death and executed. However, seventy years afterward, he was exonerated by Judge Carmen Mullen. In 2014, seven prisoners awaiting the death penalty won exoneration on grounds of innocence. The seven, six of whom were Black, had served on average more than thirty years in prison. Since 1973, about 165 people, more than 80 percent of whom were Black, have been exonerated and freed after serving more than three decades in American prisons.

It is important to note that incarceration of Black people in American prisons is only the last stage of the brutal process, again echoing their incarceration and involuntary servitude in the slave plantations. In the context of slavery, the first stage was the brutality against Black people on the streets of Africa and in their homes. They were arrested, beaten, and bundled off in chains to be packed like sardines in slave ships and ferried across the Atlantic Ocean to American plantations. In the contemporary period, the process begins with police brutality against Black people on the streets of America or in their homes, wrongfully arresting them, handcuffing them, beating them, shoving them into police vehicles, charging and sentencing them, and finally depositing them in private prisons where they begin to make money for the prisons’ owners, sometimes throughout their remaining lives.

No one doubts today that it would never have been possible to stop the brutality and arrest of innocent Africans for enslavement without abolishing involuntary servitude for profit; likewise, in contemporary America, it would be ineffective to focus superficially on police brutality against Black people without ending the privatization of prisons. Privatization and its profits fuel brutality and incarceration from behind the scenes—sometimes involving police personnel, compromised state medical examiners, corrupt judges, and key officials in the Department of Justice who may be remunerated on the basis of how many prisoners they supplied to the prison corporations.

Privatization of prisons should therefore be abolished in America, as one of the sustainable solutions to police brutality against Black people and other people in America.

The Cash Bail System Should Be Abolished

In America, the average bail amount for a felony is $10,000. An accused person is required to deposit the sum as an assurance that he or she will attend their trial proceedings. If he or she fails to attend, the cash deposit is forfeited. In addition, the suspect faces being charged with the additional offense of contempt of court. Compared to the average income of Black people, this sum is generally unaffordable. This helps to explain why some 70 percent of the entire jail population is made up of pretrial detainees: individuals unable to afford cash bail or even bail-bond premiums. Bail-bond corporations charge nonrefundable premiums upfront, usually about 10 to 15 percent of the arbitrarily and discriminatorily set bail sums, and the 85 to 90 percent of the remaining bail amount is secured with the detainee’s collateral, which will be forfeited if he or she fails to appear in court and the bail-bond corporation is consequently required to pay.

The case of Kalif Browder aptly explains this high degree of injustice. He was a sixteen-year-old African American charged with stealing a backpack in New York City. His bail was set at $3,000; he remained in detention for three years because his family could not afford to pay. After prosecutors dropped the charges and released him, he committed suicide, having been severely traumatized while in detention. This is extreme but hardly atypical of the experiences of many other Black people in America who are frequently frisked, arrested, and detained and whose detention makes money for both private detention centers and the enormously profitable bail-bond industry.

Given the frequent frisks and arrests of Black people, often without reasonable cause, it does seem that there are some police officers purposely hunting down Black people on the streets and in their homes to ensure the constant flow of revenues to bail bond and prison corporations. Arguably, these are key propelling forces behind police brutality; there appears to be a strong financial interest attached to the number of arrests a policeman can make, and vulnerable minorities are their prime targets. These corporations and their agents profit highly from human rights abuses against Black people. Obviously, this contradicts America’s self-acclaimed title as the great defender of human rights and the rule of law.

A sustainable solution is to replace the cash bail system with surety bail, as practiced in Canada and many other countries. Bail should be free, and any adult with good character should be able to surety a bail by pledging to pay a particular bail amount if the accused person fails to attend his or her trial proceedings. Given the stage of America’s technological development, whereby the government possesses extensive personal data on most Americans, there is actually no flight risk that warrants the high cash bail amounts. Fortunately, there seems to be hope; Philadelphia and New York have undertaken bail reform initiatives that have benefitted low level offenders. The 2016 New York City Supervised Release Program should be the starting point toward a total elimination of the cash bail system.

Conclusion: The Disease of Regulatory Capture

Perhaps it has reached the stage where Americans should consider seriously whether corporations ought to be banned from directly or indirectly giving money to politicians and political campaigns. A culture that disapproves of politicians receiving huge sums from rich individuals (who are often investors) and from corporations themselves needs to be quickly nurtured to end the destructive effects that such donations have upon the genuine interests of the American people. It is incontrovertible that corporations in America now contribute vast sums of money for the elections of presidents and congressmen, who work together to respectively appoint and confirm loyalist judges.

In all these financial transactions, there is the silent expectation—sometimes an overt promise—by the beneficiaries (the three arms of government) to reciprocate their supporters’ financial benevolence by promoting the interests of corporate donors through favorable lawmaking, enforcement, and interpretation of law. This situation, known as “regulatory capture,” is equivalent to bribing serving government officials—except that in this case, the bribe takes place ex ante, before the fact. In truth, it makes a mockery of the democratic notion that elected members of the legislature and executive represent the American people and would therefore make and enforce laws primarily for the people’s benefit. To the contrary, they that pay the piper will always dictate the tune.

The prison and bail-bond corporations contribute financially in realizing the ambitions of political candidates in America, and it would be ironic to truly expect some of these politicians, focused on the costs of their reelections, to engage in sustainable prison and bail-systems reform. Thus, patriotic Americans need to be aware of these phenomena so as to support and elect politicians with the will and compassion to enact legislation that will terminate profiteering incarceration.

Chima Williams Iheme

Chima Williams Iheme obtained his doctorate degree in legal studies from the Central European University (an American institution in Hungary). He is an advocate and defender of human rights and strongly promotes open society values through writings and lectures. He is a member of the Atheist Society of Nigeria, as well as the Brights Movement, both organizations are dedicated to promoting science and critical inquiry. Iheme derives fulfillment and joy in courtroom advocacy for the protection of human rights and in assisting young people to attain intellectual independence.

Introduction: Police Brutality in America Is Only the Tip of the Iceberg Those who care about human rights have the duty to prevent crimes against humanity and the possibility of a genocide stemming from hate and racism. An overwhelming amount of data now shows that Black people in America are three times more likely to …

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