“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander is the Bible for many sentencing reform advocates, attorneys—and inmates. As I have been visiting federal prisons all year for a series on prisons and sentencing reform, it is the one book that is mentioned over and over again.
Sharanda Jones, 48, a first-time nonviolent drug offender serving a life without parole sentence in Texas, said she keeps the book in her cell and called it “my Bible.” Attorney Brittany Byrd, who successfully filed a clemency petition for former inmate Donel Marcus Clark granted clemency by President Obama after 22 years behind bars, has a copy of “The New Jim Crow,” in her Dallas apartment. She met the author when she was in law school and asked her to sign it.
And now, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg says the book inspired him to visit San Quentin State Prison with his wife Priscilla.
“We wanted to see first hand what prison conditions are like for people – and we got a chance to speak with inmates and staff,” Zuckerberg said in his posting.
Zuckerberg cited some of statistics about mass incarceration that he’s come across: U.S. jails and prisons hold about 2.4 million people, which is about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. About 40 percent of prisoners are black. And more than half the people entering prison live below the poverty line.
“Our entire society pays the price for an unfair, broken system,” Zuckerberg wrote.
“The New Jim Crow” is cited constantly during the growing bipartisan efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system and reverse the nation’s costly and troubling mass incarceration of people mostly of color. On Capitol Hill, criminal justice reform legislation, supported by both the conservatives Koch brothers and the American Civil Liberties is making its way through Congress.
Cornel West, former Harvard and Princeton professor, activist and author, called Alexander’s 2010 book an “instant classic,” saying “the New Jim Crow is a grand wake-up call in the midst of a long slumber of indifference to the poor and vulnerable.”
The book has helped set off a wave of interest in prison reform. Earlier this year, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. When Pope Francis visited the United States last month, he visited inmates inside Philadelphia’s largest prison. The Justice Department is set to release about 6,000 drug inmates early from prison in the largest one-time release of federal prisoners as a result of action taken last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce the punishment for drug offenders.
San Quentin, Zuckerberg said, has one of the best track records of former inmates not returning to prison because they offer programs to teach skills that will help inmates find jobs.
“In this photo, I’m talking with inmates who are taking a coding course,” he writes of the photo he posted. “I was impressed by their spirit to return to their communities and provide for their families, as well as the dedication of the staff to help them reclaim their lives.”
Zuckerberg said he that making the criminal justice system more fair is a huge challenge for the country.
“We can’t jail our way to a just society, and our current system isn’t working,” he wrote.
He ended his post by saying he wants to “keep learning about this topic.”
One helpful resource for Zuckerberg? Might we suggest the Post’s yearlong series on the criminal justice system, “Unwinding the Drug War.”