On Monday President Barack Obama, surrounded by members of his President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing—created in the wake of last year’s grand jury decisions in the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—announced policy recommendations to local law enforcement as a response to the outrage generated by a nationwide epidemic of police violence.
“We have a great opportunity,” said Obama, “coming out of some great conflict and tragedy, to really transform how we think about community-law-enforcement relations so that everybody feels safer and our law-enforcement officers feel, rather than being embattled, feel fully supported.
“We need to seize that opportunity,” he added.
The president’s words came one day after the New York Times reported on a pattern of systemic prisoner abuse at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York. The story offered readers a glimpse into a world where a predominantly African-American inmate population is routinely brutalized by the prison’s mostly white staff of guards. One young black man, George Williams, received a beating in 2011 severe enough to break his legs and force the prison to send him to two different hospitals for treatment.
On Monday, the same day that Obama spoke of hope and promise for better understanding between law enforcement and the black community, the three guards charged with Williams’ brutal assault resigned (with their full pensions) in a misdemeanor plea deal that avoided jail time.
There is an important connection between the task force report and Attica. Attica, which became a metaphor for state repression following a 1971 prison rebellion that left 39 men (29 prisoners and 10 hostages) dead, reveals the breadth and depth of corruption in a criminal-justice system that requires fundamental transformation and not just mere reform. Reports of abuse in Attica are far from isolated events, as recent exposés on brutality at New York City’s Rikers Island prison attest.
We can no longer afford to ignore the fact that the pervasive culture of police brutality and the law-enforcement approach that produced the crisis in Ferguson, Mo., continues—at times even worsens—in our prison system. Those convicted of crimes, according to our system, have precious few rights that correctional facilities must respect, including the right to dignified and humane treatment.
The system of mass incarceration, which the legal scholar Michelle Alexander has dubbed The New Jim Crow, envelops virtually every aspect of American life, drawing fresh inmates from our public schools; brutalizing the mentally ill and indigent; and allowing the breaking of inmates’ legs while offering substandard medical care and permitting the perpetrators to maintain their pensions, futures and the freedoms denied to those incarcerated.
Policymakers have implored the president to respond with sweeping changes that alter the way in which criminal-justice grants are distributed to local states via executive order. #BlackLivesMatter protests have galvanized moral outrage against the shooting and beating of black folks nationwide and internationally, inside and outside of prisons.
But Obama’s words reminded me of how often we fail to connect the most important dots. Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson is intimately linked with the violent assault against George Williams in Attica, just as Eric Garner’s killing in Staten Island, N.Y., is connected to the abuse of mentally ill inmates on Rikers Island.
What all these instances share is the criminalization and dehumanization of black bodies at the hands of institutions that much of the general public still believe are designed to serve and protect society. These unconscionable abuses illustrate the need for both comprehensive policy to end the injustices and for a social movement ambitious enough to understand the deep connections between the police abuse of ordinary citizens and a prison guard’s abuse of inmates. What both citizens and inmates have in common—whether courts, politicians or pundits refuse to see it—is a shared humanity that should be treated with equal dignity and respect for both the innocent and the guilty.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.