Prisons, Race, and Society

Article excerpt

Sasezley Richardson, a 19-year-old African-American, was carrying a bag of diapers down a quiet street in Elkhart, Ind., last month when he was fatally shot. Two white teenagers charged with the murder were looking for any black person to kill, allege local law- enforcement authorities.

One of the assailants had recently been released from an Indiana juvenile prison where, a local newspaper alleges, he'd joined the Aryan Brotherhood, a violent, racist prison gang with affiliates nationwide. The other assailant, the Elkhart Truth newspaper reported, hoped the Richardson killing would earn him membership in the Aryan Brotherhood.

The case recalls the dismemberment last year of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. Byrd was killed by young white men who had joined a white supremacist gang while in prison and then carried its murderous ideology out onto the streets.

In the past two decades, white supremacist groups have grown in strength and number in US prisons. They now exert enormous influence over the lives of thousands of men and women who live and work in prisons. They also appear to play an important role in recruitment for extremist groups outside of prisons. These developments coincide with an explosive increase in incarceration rates, especially among people of color.

The long-term consequences for race relations in America are profound. Yet as the incidence of incarceration rises, so does our unwillingness to ask or acknowledge what is happening behind prison walls.

Prisons are perhaps the most racially divisive institutions in America. At present rates of incarceration, 1 out of every 4 black men, 1 out of every 6 Hispanic men, and 1 out of every 20 white men will go to prison in their lifetimes. Most arrive young, poor, undereducated, and unprepared for the violent racism and hatred of the prison world. Within a few years, the majority return to the world outside, taking their lessons of hatred with them. Many become foot soldiers for extremist groups first encountered behind bars.

Inmates aren't the only white supremacists in prisons; prison staff are often involved as well. Several years ago at the juvenile institution in Plainfield, Ind., where one of Sasezley Richardson's assailants was once incarcerated, black staff received a venomous "Message From Your Grand Wizard" in their mailboxes. At the adjoining adult prison, a white supremacist recruitment poster was tacked to the staff bulletin board, and a sergeant was demoted when he showed his Klan membership card to a black officer.

At the nearby state prison in Putnamville, Ind., staff and inmates have alleged a reign of terror by a staff-based white supremacist group called, simply, the Brotherhood. …

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