This story is the fifth piece in the Truthout series, Severed Ties: The Human Toll of Prisons. This series dives deeply into the impact of incarceration on families, loved ones and communities, demonstrating how the United States’ incarceration of more than 2 million people also harms many millions more — including 2.7 million children.
When I was asked to write something “personal” about being sentenced to a prison term of 52 to 80 years, and the time I have served thus far, I was torn. During the last 23 years of having to always chase after something, hide something and hold my ground against something or someone, I have always shied away from autobiographical ways of speaking and writing about this real–life nightmare. But I believe personal stories like mine are important because they give a human face to the pain and misery of imprisonment experienced by incarcerated people as a whole.
It’s a failure of both local and national media, as well as institutions of higher learning, that an essay such as this is even thought to be necessary. Our society has massively launched onto a path of caging and torturing an unprecedented number of men, women and children, and the people who are supposed to critique and shed light on this draconian practice have largely neglected to do so, at least in a way that is commensurate to the crisis.
From time to time there is reporting on some major problem of imprisonment, but in my opinion, the reporting rarely conveys the connection between the specific crises they describe and the root cause of imprisonment itself. For example, in relation to the US leading the world in imprisonment, many issues have been the subject of investigative inquiry, including the disproportionate number of imprisoned poor people; long–term consequences, such as the making of a permanent underclass; the expected cycle of imprisonment from generation to generation; the decline in births among groups that are overrepresented in America’s many jails and prisons; the school–to–prison pipeline; the connection between race and imprisonment; and the pay–to–play nature of the criminal justice system. But few of these matters are linked directly to the imperatives of economic expansion, monopoly capitalism, imperialism and the pursuit of superprofits. The net result is a lack of clarity.
By telling my own story — a story shared by the many working–class Detroit residents who were forcefully displaced through the brutal “redevelopment” of the city’s Cass Corridor area — I hope to shed some much–needed light on how the capitalist profit motives that drive gentrification are a core cause of mass incarceration in this country. City Planners Wreak Disaster on the Cass Corridor in Detroit
I first learned about people, about cruelty, about forced sacrifices, about being a hard worker [to build a life for others], about who is and isn’t important, and about fair speech and diabolical actions during the 1980s and 1990s, in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, under conditions of gentrification. I saw with my own eyes how economic and social development dismantled the downtown Cass Corridor area and created internal refugees of American citizens, many of whom join me in here, in prison.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Cass Corridor was suffused with vibrancy, joy and a tolerance of others that was clearly connected with Detroiters’ selfesteem and a general sense of optimism about the future. When Detroiters elected their first Black mayor, Coleman A. Young, in 1974, first-time home ownership was at an all-time high, and conflicts that plagued Detroit’s labor movement for over half a century appeared to be resolved. Then life changed.
I don’t know which came first, but the changes came hard and fast: mortgage foreclosures, the imposition of tax liens, governments seizing property through their power of eminent domain, the reduction and gutting of city services, city officials ignoring an influx of drugs and prostitution, ram-pant homelessness, and courts and prisons increased presence in our lives. But I am certain we were being pushed out of the Cass Corridor, displaced through a complex network of public and private interests. In the mid 1980s, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young announced that city dollars would be used to finance the development of downtown hotels, so that Detroit could attract convention business. Homes were foreclosed, businesses were dismantled, and everyday decision–making power was shifted from families and local business owners to state legislators, venture capitalists and a combination of financial institutions and interests.
It was as if a number of bombs just went off. Almost overnight the Cass Corridor resembled a war zone. Vehicles that swept city streets and removed trash could be seen broken down on the side of the road. The stench from mountains of trash was unbearable. Two of the three supermarkets that provided food to the 2,000 or so residents of the Cass Corridor were burned down, never to be rebuilt. The city shut off power lines needed to keep the street lights on, giving a whole new meaning to the word darkness. Then, many men in the neighborhood took to scrapping, and the power lines were the first to go. At night on some streets, it was impossible to see three feet in any direction. I don’t think anyone felt safe, including myself. Three of the area’s four schools — Burton Elementary, James Couzens Elementary and Jefferson Junior High — looked more like abandoned factories than places of learning. Disinvestment made it appear as if every essential service required for a decent and safe living had come under rocket fire.
The immediate objective seemed to be to create unlivable conditions. The longer term objective seemed to be to force us out of the Cass Corridor so it could be “renewed,” the new phrase at the time meant to hide and shift public dialogue into a direction favorable to economic power. To accomplish these twin goals, city officials became the linchpin of a strategy that involved radically reducing municipal spending —including spending on health, education and welfare— combined with giving greater resources and authority to police and prosecutors and expanding the criminal code before embarking on imprisoning many of the casualties of renewal.