by Tonyaa Weathersbee, BlackAmericaWeb.com
Something surreal happened in Grayson County, Virginia recently: A bunch of white people were complaining because a bunch of black people didn’t move there.
But they didn’t expect to generate friendships with them. They expected to make money off them.
It seems that the people in this mostly-white southwestern Virginia County had been counting on a new state prison to open there. According to The Washington Post, the 1,024-bed, medium-security prison would have generated around 350 jobs. It was built based on projections that the inmate population was expected to grow by 1,000 a year.
That projection, however, was tied to the perpetuation of racial injustice.
Over the past two decades, black people, who make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population, have comprised close to 45 percent of the state and federal prison population. Most are locked up not because they are drug kingpins or violent gangbangers, but because they either were caught using crack cocaine or selling it on corners in poor communities, where, unfortunately, the drug trade has become the only economic engine for them.
It was also based on the notion that blacks who use crack cocaine would continue to receive lopsidedly harsher sentences than whites who use powder cocaine.
But as it turns out, an apparent dip in the number of incarcerated black drug offenders – some experts believe that a decline in open air drug sales and a reduction in police profiling may be the reason – have thrown such projections off. Strapped budgets are also forcing states to close prisons rather than open new ones.
That’s why the new prison in Grayson County is still empty.
You’d think this would be good news. You’d think the people in that county would not want to be characterized as the place where the prison is. In fact, you’d think they would have fought like hell to stop a prison from being built there in the first place, as it is a risky industry that feeds on society’s failures rather than its successes.
But according to the Post, people there were counting on the prison to open to save their community economically. Their unemployment rate is around 11 percent, fueled by an exodus of the textile and furniture industries. They had so counted on the prison jobs that they actually raised taxes to build more schools to accommodate the employees who would move there with their children.
This angers me.
It angers me because when I think of people who are clamoring for prison jobs to keep their communities economically afloat, I can’t help but think of how such jobs come at the cost of black lives.
Such jobs were created largely by the War on Drugs – a failed, 40-year experiment that has done more to destroy black communities than to save them. It has done nothing to reverse the economic neglect that has made it easier for the drug trade to thrive and has led more black people, especially young black males, to grow up believing that incarceration is an inevitability instead of an anomaly.
It’s tragic, really, when things are so bad economically that places like Grayson County are now fighting to open prisons instead of fighting to keep them out. But to me, what’s more tragic is that prisons are no longer seen as a necessary evil to contain society’s most dangerous criminals, but as an economic engine that, for all intents and purposes, revolves around the devaluing of black people.
I see why the people in that county are desperate for jobs. But it’s hard for me to feel bad about their community being destabilized because they can’t find employment when the mass incarceration industry they are depending on for their salvation has destabilized scores of black communities.
To me, the unfairness is just too much to bear.