Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about racial injustice

Bryan Stevenson is a public-interest lawyer who recently gave an inspiring TED Talk about racial injustice. Stevenson founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive, unfair and racist sentencing. This is a rare TED Talk for confronting issues of racial injustice, and well worth watching (23:14):
Stevenson’s talk even includes an oh-so-gentle challenge to the audience at TED to “be more courageous” and talk about issues of racial injustice with more regularity. Yet, the online comments that follow the video quickly get mired in white-framed thinking, where one person derails the conversation away from racial injustice. Still, bravo to Bryan Stevenson for his work, and good for TED for including his talk at this elite venue.


  1. parvenu

    A hat tip to Jessie for posting Byron’s excellent TED Talk. However, I did find Byron’s response to the question as what can TED members do to help fight the tremendous increase in the number of incarcerations of young black men in America somewhat less specific than the folksy details he provided in his talk. I would classify his response during the TED aftertalk Q&A as being mainstrean “generic” at best.

    One of the issues that Byron left out of his TED Talk that is more of a factor than the “War on Drugs” in the explosive growth of the black and latino prison populations is the emergence of the Prison Industry in America. The Prison Industry working with ALEC has been responsible for the state enacted legislation removing voting rights from convicted felons in dozens of states around the nation. ALEC modeled legislation, pushed by the Prison Industry, also requires rigid background checks to be made by employers on all new potential employees. It should be very clear that this new legislation is designed to help maintain the availablity of the largest prison populations possible. This in turn guarantees the growth in huge profits in the Prison Industry. Byron should have also made it clear to his TED audience that the Wall Street based Prison Industries are controlling almost $2b of prison generated income this year alone across the nation, and as such prison slave-labor has been a definite brake on the economic recovery in many small towns located near prisons around the nation.

    Unfortunately Byron failed to present his audience with the fact that this fight against unjust incareration of black and latino youth is now more than a moral issue. It has become a strong powerful component of the American Industrial sector. Sit-ins and marches are impotent tools for battling this epidemic and the super corporate political power that make up this industry. Congress enabled the conditions that lead to the creation of the American Prison Industry, and Congress is the only way that it can be fixed. Byron missed a valuable opportunity to make the TED audience aware of their personal responsibility to make this change happen.

  2. cordoba blue

    This brings up an interesting issue. We all know about Blackmon’s “Slavey By Another Name”. But what about using prisoners TODAY for jobs nobody else wants to do? Millions of prisoners are paid approximately $1.10 an hour to work in unsafe conditions.
    “Inmates are being forced to work in toxic ‘e-waste’ Sweatshops”
    BY Christopher Moraff

    U.S. prisoners working for a computer-recycling operation run by Federal Prison Industries (FPI) are being exposed to a toxic cocktail of hazardous chemicals through their prison jobs while efforts by some prison officials to protect them have been met with stonewalling and subterfuge.

    Since 1994, FPI has used inmates to disassemble electronic waste (e-waste)–the detritus of obsolete computers, televisions and related electronics goods–for recycling. According to a new report, “Toxic Sweatshops”–published jointly by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Center for Environmental Health,** California-based Computer TakeBack Campaign and the Prison Activist Resource Center–the waste contains high levels of arsenic, selenium, mercury, lead, dioxins and beryllium–all considered dangerous by the Environmental Protection Agency.

    The report follows three years of mounting scrutiny of FPI by the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Critics say that the scrutiny has led to few reforms.

    FPI, which operates as a unit of the semi-autonomous, government-run corporation UNICOR, opened its first electronics recycling business at a federal prison in Marianna, Florida, in 1994. Since then, the company’s electronics recycling program has spread to six other federal prisons across the country. Inmates working for UNICOR are paid between 23 cents and $1.15 per hour. In 2005 the company recorded $64.5 million in profits.

    The problems outlined in “Toxic Sweatshops” first came to light in 2002, when UNICOR opened a recycling shop in Atwater Federal Prison, a maximum-security facility in Merced, California. Among their duties, prisoners at the facility were charged with separating glass cathode ray tubes (CRT) from computer monitors. Sometimes they were given hammers; other times, they were forced to improvise.

    “When the operation began, most glass room workers would heft the CRT to head height and slam the CRT down on the metal table and keep slamming it on the table until the glass broke away from whatever they were trying to remove,” said one prisoner quoted in the report. “We were getting showers of glass and chemicals out of the tube.”
    Sounds like Blackmon needs to write another book. Slavery by Another Name in the 21st Century. It’s still happening.

  3. cordoba blue


    Despite a chilling official silence, 1995 was a bombshell in the “war on crime.” In this one year alone, 150 new prisons were built in the United States and 171 existing prisons were expanded. This was the year the crime bill was passed, mandating that 100,000 additional police officers be added to the already enormous law enforcement establishment. In California, this was the first year that the state budget allocated more money for prisons than higher education. Most astonishingly, with one short day of media attention, 1995 was the year that Alabama’s governor Fob James, and other state officials, made the callous and horrifying decision to reinstate the nationally abolished chain gang.

    The return of chain gangs, as well as the return of convict leasing, in the last decade, comes on the back of extensive state-run prison industries and convict labor programs. As the prison population has continued to grow, convict productive labor and employment has developed into one of the largest growth industries. The significance of this movement toward mass incarceration must be seen in a historical context. It is crucial to understand that, though incarceration has been normalized as society’s natural response to crime, there was not always a prison system in this country. Examining how the prison system was developed and how it operates today, it is clear that this form of social control has been deeply linked to the institutionalization of racism, working-class oppression, and labor exploitation.

    In the 1990s, the California Department of Corrections maintains that convict labor is only a peripheral program within the larger system confinement and punishment of convicts. However, the Prison Industry Authority is a multi-million dollar industry that is dependent on the productivity of California prisoners. As inmates are classified for placement in an institution, they are surveyed for almost 50 different work skills, from appliance repair to x-ray technician, to determine which institution they should be placed in. Clearly, the experience and work skills these convicts already have coming into the institution counter the notion that convict labor programs are about job training and education.
    The Department of Corrections maintains that work in the institution is voluntary; however, each day worked reduces a prisoner’s sentence by one day. Therefore, those who refuse to work will serve twice as long a sentence as the convicts who agree to work. In addition, the “Work/Privilege Group” classification process further punishes prisoners who refuse to work. There are four work/privilege classifications for prisoners: A = full time work, B = half-time work/waiting list, C = refuses to work, D = special segregation unit prisoners. The prisoners who refuse to work, labeled as Group C, are “not entitled to family visits, and are limited to one-fourth of the maximum monthly canteen draw. Telephone calls are permitted only on an emergency basis as determined by the institution’s staff. While access to the yard is allowed, no special packages or access to other recreational or entertainment activities are allowed.” These extreme coercive tactics contradict the claim that labor is voluntary.

    The Joint Venture Program of the California Department of Corrections is the board responsible for contracting out convict labor to “any public entity, nonprofit or for profit entity, organization, or business.” This program was created by the passage of Proposition 139, the Inmate Labor Initiative of 1990, which was an initiative to overturn the 1882 abolition of convict leasing in California. A poll conducted by the San Francisco Chronicle found that less than 25 percent of the electorate was aware of Proposition 139 less than one month before the election. However, when voters read the ballot description, a majority passed this initiative allowing private business to profit from convict laborers. Work that had been done on the outside is now done by convicts who are paid 20 percent of minimum wage, worked under constant armed supervision, unable to legally unionize, and unprotected by the Fair Labor-Standards Act.
    One of the most important aspects of Proposition 139 is its repeal of the principle that labor in prison must be voluntary:

    The people of the state of California find and declare that inmates who are confined in state prison or county jails should work as hard as taxpayers for their upkeep, and that those inmates may be required to perform work and services.
    The initiative mandates that prisoners be made to work to pay for their imprisonment, and reintroduces private industry into the prison to benefit from this unprotected labor.
    By June of 1994, 13 corporations were operating in California prisons, including a computerized telephone message center for Tower Communications in the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, green waste recycling for Western Waste Industries in the California Institute for Men in Chino, and electronic component manufacturing for Quality Manufacturing Solutions, Inc. in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.


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