BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Last month in Sydney, Australia, they threw an annual event called the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. One of the main speakers was David Simon, the writer and producer who created “The Wire” and “Treme,” two television series that vividly portray the vast gap between rich and poor. Nothing drives that great divide home, he said, like our prison system.

DAVID SIMON: You're seeing the underclass hunted through a war on dangerous drugs allegedly that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, at this point. In terms of just the sheer numbers of people we've put in American prisons […] No other country on the face of the earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

BILL MOYERS: He’s right, of course. During the past 30 years, the number of inmates in federal custody has grown by 800 percent, and half of them are serving sentences for drug offenses. According to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group dedicated to changing how we think about crime and punishment, “more than 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities.” This book woke people up. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. She was my guest more than three years ago when the book was first published.

An outstanding work of scholarship on how our war on drugs, our harsh mandatory minimum sentencing, and racism have converged to create a caste system in this country very much like the one under Jim Crow segregation laws. None of us at the time anticipated the powerful impact her book would have.

It became a best-seller, spurred an even wider conversation about justice and inequality, and transformed Michelle Alexander from attorney and professor to an activist and advocate for an end to our dehumanizing penal system.

Michelle Alexander, welcome.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BILL MOYERS: When the book came out one reviewer called it the bible of a social movement. Have you seen the apostles and the disciples and the church spreading? Have you seen the signs of a movement?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. And it has me so encouraged. As I travel from city to city, and I've been speaking in churches and at universities, I've been speaking inside prisons and reentry centers, just an incredible range of venues, I see over and over again people who are dedicating their lives now to ending the system of mass incarceration, to raising consciousness. People of faith who are organizing their church communities, organizing within mosques, holding study circles, holding film festivals and then organizing and mobilizing their memberships. Or their congregations.

I'm especially encouraged by formerly incarcerated people who are finding their voice and organizing to man the restoration of their basic civil and human rights. Organizations like All of Us or None which has successfully, you know, achieve Ban the Box legislation.

BILL MOYERS: Ban the Box?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Ban the Box on employment applications, the, you know, box on employment applications that asks that dreaded question, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" And of course it doesn't matter whether you've been convicted of a felony a few weeks ago or 40 years ago, for the rest of your life, you're labeled a felon and then subject to legal discrimination, for the rest of your life.

BILL MOYERS: What do those ex-felons, what have they been telling you about what it's like to come out and try to get back into the society to which they have paid for their sins?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I think it's just an extraordinary challenge. And I think most people have this sense that when you're released from prison, well, yeah, life is hard. But if you really dedicate yourself, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you know, knock on enough doors, you'll get that job, you'll get your life back together. It may be hard but if you really try, you can do it.

But what I've learned, you know, over the years from working with many formerly incarcerated people, and forming close friendships with many people who have been released from prison, is that it's not just hard, it's often impossible. You're released from prison, often with, you know, maybe $20 in your pocket. Have nowhere to sleep.

You try to return home, maybe to your family who lives in public housing. Your family risks eviction in many places if they just even allow you to come home. Felons can be excluded from public housing. Whole families can risk eviction if they allow people with felonies to come home to them.

Trying to get a job can be next to impossible. You know, people say, "Well, they could get a job at, you know, Burger King or some, you know, minimum wage job." No actually, you know, many low-wage jobs are, for all practical purposes, off-limits to people who have felonies. Hundreds of professional licenses are off-limits to people who have felonies.

In my state in Ohio, until just recently, you couldn't even get a license to be a barber if you'd been convicted of a felony. Food stamps may be off-limits to you if you've been convicted of a drug felony. You know, what are people released from prison expected to do? Apparently what we expect them to do is to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs, accumulative back child support, which continues to accrue while you're in prison.

And in a growing number of states you're actually expected to pay back the cost of your imprisonment. And paying back all these fees, fines and court costs may be a condition of your probation or parole. And then if you're one of the lucky few, the very few who even manages to get a job straight out of prison, up to 100 percent of your wages can be garnished to pay back all those fees, fines, court costs.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain this, given the fact that this is a society that celebrates second chances, for politicians in particular, a society that is built around the theme of renewal, born again and yet, doesn't extend that same act of forgiveness to people who have paid for their sins.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, we say we're a society that supports second chances. But in reality, we're not. And I think the reason-- to fully understand what's happened in this country, with respect to mass incarceration, you have to look back at least 40 years to the law and order movement that was born in the midst of the Civil Rights movement.

You know, when Civil Rights advocates were beginning to violate segregation laws and sit-in at lunch counters and desegregate trains and busses violating what they believed were unjust laws-- segregationists said, you know, "This is leading to the breakdown of the respect for law. We need law and order in this country." And the call for law and order was in direct response to the Civil Rights movement and the non-violent, civil disobedience the protesters were engaged in.

But this law and order movement began to take on a life of its own as crime rates began to rise in urban areas and some politicians began to say, you know, "This rise in crime is a symptom of this attitude of lawlessness that is spreading through the nation. We need to get tough. We need to crack down. We need law and order."

And as I've documented at great lengths in the book, and many other political scientists and historians have as well, the get tough movement and the war on drugs really is traceable to a backlash against the gains of African-Americans in the Civil Rights movement and a radical shift in mentality that occurred where as a nation we ended the war on poverty and declared the war on drugs. A wave of punitiveness really swept the nation on the heels of the Civil Rights movement. And this attitude-- has infected not only our criminal justice system but our education system that now has a zero tolerance policy for school discipline infractions. And has led to this prison building boom unlike anything the world has ever seen.

BILL MOYERS: How have mandatory minimum sentences contributed to that?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, mandatory minimum sentences ensures that you will get the harshest possible sentence under law. The mandatory minimum sentence. And so it shifts power to the prosecutor so the prosecutors can then say to you, "Well, you take this plea or else you're going to get this harsh mandatory minimum sentence." And it gives prosecutors the power to, you know, encourage plea deals, you know, in a federal system. I think 97 to 98 percent of all, you know, charged cases result in a plea, not a trial because people are terrified of facing these harsh mandatory minimum sentences. And it ensures that it's up to the prosecutor, not the judge, you know, what kind of sentence you receive. And mandatory minimum sentences has a lot to do with the exponential increase in our prison population in the United States.

And today, you know, even in this era of Obama, in this time of supposed-color blindness, we now have created a system of mass incarceration, a penal system unprecedented in world history. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of even highly-repressive regimes like Russia or China or Iran. And the majority of the increase in incarceration in the United States have been among impoverished people of color who, once they're swept into the system, are then stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights movement. And yet, the topic of mass incarceration has been one, you know, that has been rarely raised.

BILL MOYERS: Is there research that confirms that the backlash is against black criminals or against criminals, just crime?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, there is. There's an enormous amount of research that suggests that the backlash and the punitive impulse was not simply in response to crime but was much more deeply connected to racial attitudes, racial fears and anxieties. And in fact, you know, the political strategist who conceived of the get tough movement and the war on drugs quite deliberately used not so subtle racial appeals and racial code language with the purpose of trying to exploit both conscious and unconscious racial biases and stereotypes for political gain. The Southern strategy.

BILL MOYERS: By which Richard Nixon was elected president.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, yes. The basis of the Southern strategy was using these kind of racially coded get tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working class whites particularly in the South who were anxious about, threatened by, resentful of many of the gains of African-Americans in the Civil Rights movement.

And to be fair, I think we have got to acknowledge that poor and working class whites really had their world rocked by the Civil Rights movement. You know, wealthy whites could send their kids to private schools, give their kids all of the advantages that wealth has to offer. But poor and working class whites in the South, many of whom were themselves struggling for survival, who are desperately poor, often illiterate. They were the ones who might have to ship their kids across town to go to a school they believed were inferior. It was they who were suddenly forced to compete on equal times for limited jobs with this whole group of people they've been taught their whole lives to believe were inferior to them. And this state of affairs did create an enormous amount of fear, resentment and anxiety and an enormous political opportunity.

BILL MOYERS: What about now? How do you see that playing out?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I see it most obviously in the immigration debate. Today we see that this fear of immigrants coming across the border to take jobs and to take educational resources and who are going to drain the tax base of your county. These fears that they are coming to take from you is leading and has led to another for get tough movement. Get tough on them, those immigrants who have violated the law by crossing over. And this wave of punitiveness now directed towards immigrants is leading to the same kind of indifference towards their basic humanity that we have seen in the war on drugs and the get tough movement that led to the rise of mass incarceration. I mean, race has been used as a wedge again and again throughout American history to divide the lower classes, if you will. And to create an environment in which poor and working class people are pit against one another.

But that does not mean that, you know, all or even most poor or working class white folks are harboring any conscious racial resentments. I know that there are those folks out there, for sure. But I think much of it lies in the unconscious, stereotypes and fears and biases that we all have within us that get exploited in these moments where groups are scapegoated and fears are stoked, resulting in, you know, the emergence of these new systems. I mean, we are having mass deportation today at the same time as we are having mass incarceration.

BILL MOYERS: Mass deportation, I must say, by a black president.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. It's one of the great ironies. Just as it's, you know, an irony that the greatest escalation of the drug war was under President Clinton who, you know, many African-Americans called our first black president.

BILL MOYERS: I remember that.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And it was President Clinton, you know, a Democrat, who escalated the drug war far beyond what President Reagan or President Nixon had even dreamed possible. And it was the Clinton administration that championed laws banning drug offenders even from federal financial aid for schooling upon their release. Banning drug offenders and people with criminal convictions from, you know, public housing. You know, to a large extent many of the rules, laws, policies and practices that now constitute this caste-like system were championed by a Democratic president administration desperate to win back those so-called white swing voters. The folks who had defected from the Democratic party in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.

BILL MOYERS: I was going to ask you what do you think is the dynamic that drove Clinton and now drives Obama? Is it to satisfy the base they think most hostile to them?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I think so. And, you know, what I find most unfortunate though, of the politics that have developed over the years, the politics of trying to appease, you know, poor and working class whites not by building explicitly multiracial, multi-ethnic, you know, coalitions and alliances that encourage solidarity across racial and class lines. But instead by kind of tossing these symbolic bones, you know, saying, "Well, we're escalating the drug war. We're getting tough on them. Don't you feel better now? We're willing to get tough by deporting even more immigrants than ever have been deported before. Don't you feel better now?"

We fall into the trap of really playing to people's, you know, baser fears and instincts rather than risking perhaps some short-term losses, but building the kind of unity and the kind of solidarity across race and class lines which I believe would help to ensure a much more stable foundation for the kind of multi-racial, multi-ethnic, inclusive democracy that I would hope for. Which is why my great hope does not lie with President Obama or our elected politicians no matter how well-meaning or well-intentioned they may be.

BILL MOYERS: You have talked recently in a way different from how you were talking three and a half years ago. You've been talking about moving out of your own lane. What are you suggesting?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yeah, well, you know, right around the anniversary of the march on Washington I found myself doing a fair amount of internal reflection about my own role at this time in building the kind of movement that I would hope for, for social justice.

And what I had to admit to myself is that for the last few years, you know, I have spent all of my working hours talking about mass incarceration and trying to raise consciousness about what has happened in this country, how we've managed to birth a caste-like system again. You know, that there are more African-Americans under correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.

That we've created this vast new system again. And to try to raise consciousness so that people would wake up to this reality. And I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking.

That I wasn't connecting the dots between other kinds of social injustices that are occurring here in the United States and abroad to the work that I was committed to and the cause that I had been committed to over the years.

BILL MOYERS: It was a larger breakdown of democracy that affected more people than African-Americans in prison or immigrants being deported. You're saying that the system has broken down.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. The entire system has been broken down. And it's really I think, at its root about a failure on our part to develop a moral consensus about how we treat one another. You know, for me, I have to care. If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime. If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who's facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well?

Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King's insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.

So, I think we ought to commit ourselves to building a human rights movement in this country, a human rights movement for education, not incarceration, for jobs, not jails. A movement that will end all these forms of legal discrimination against people released from prison, discrimination that denies them basic human rights to work, to shelter, to education, to food.

BILL MOYERS: You don't think practical politics leads you where you want to go?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: No. I think that the system, as it is designed today, with the amount of money that influences who gets elected and who even has a shot of holding office in the United States today. I think that the way the system is currently designed does not allow for that kind of policy change to occur. We're going to have to build a movement that changes the nature of politics itself, that takes money and the profound influence of money out of politics and is one that is not, you know, a win/lose, winner take all kind of system. Today we have Democrats and Republicans battling it out with people joining camps and thinking that somehow through this war demonizing the opposition we're going to come up with solutions that genuinely benefit all. I think that's deeply misguided. We're going to have to become more creative about how we do democracy in the United States. But it begins I believe, with people in their communities organizing around the issues that matter most to them

BILL MOYERS: Aren't you talking in some instances about ghettoized communities that, where unemployment is high, families are in distress, schools are falling apart and there are very few life support systems. How do they organize?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: It's incredibly difficult. Incredibly difficult. But it's not impossible. I'm inspired by people like Susan Burton, for example. She's executive director of an organization in Los Angeles called A New Way of Life. And Susan is an African-American woman who became addicted to crack-cocaine after a Los Angeles Police Department Officer ran over her five-year-old boy. And if Susan, you know, had been middle class, upper-middle class, she might have had a good health care plan and might've been able to get good legal drugs to help her cope with her depression and her grief.

But things were different for Susan. She became addicted to crack-cocaine and spent 15 years cycling in and out of prison and jail. Every time, tossed out onto the street, unable to get work or even access to drug treatment, cycling in and out for 15 years. Finally she gets access to a private drug treatment program, becomes clean, is given a job and decides to dedicate her life to ensuring that no other woman would ever have to go through what she has gone through.

And now Susan runs five safe homes for formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles, providing them desperately needed shelter, support, finding work, reunifying with their families. But beyond that, she is part of All of Us or None and is organizing formally incarcerated people in California and nationwide to demand the restoration of their basic civil and human rights.

BILL MOYERS: So they--

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And what's happening is phenomenal.

BILL MOYERS: So they could become full citizens again.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And with the leadership of organizations like All of Us or None, they've succeeded in banning the box on employment applications in the entire state of California. You know, there're enormous victories that are being achieved precisely because the people who we have written off and viewed as disposable are reclaiming their voice, standing up, speaking out, organizing even as they struggle to survive.

And so, you know, my own view is that in building this movement we've got to be able to do a number of things simultaneously. We've got to be able and committed to building an underground railroad for people who are released from prison, people who need desperate help finding shelter and food as they try to make a break for real freedom. But we've also got to be willing to work for abolition at the same time. Abolition of the system of mass incarceration as a whole.

And I see people like Susan Burton and so many others miraculously managing to do these things at the same time. And so I hope that, you know, people will donate generously to these organizations which often don't receive the level of funding from foundations they deserve and also find ways to donate their time and their energy to this work and be part of this movement in a direct way.

BILL MOYERS: Aren't there some signs of progress on the issues that concern you?

Attorney General Eric Holder has begun to advocate for some reform of our mandatory minimum sentences. Here he is speaking to the American Bar Association. Take a listen.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies so that certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders who have no ties to large scale organizations, gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences. They--

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: It's a very encouraging sign. It suggests that at least for a small category of cases, mandatory minimum sentences will no longer be automatically sought by federal prosecutors. And it's a positive step in the right direction.

It doesn't go all the way. Mandatory sentences are still on the books and will still apply to thousands of people who, you know, may be dubbed as having some kind of gang-related connections and of course those kind of connections do not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

And, you know, in a number of states across the United States in recent years mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, non-violent drug crimes have been reduced. And we've seen for the first time in 40 years state prison populations beginning to decline. The federal prison population is still rising. And most of the people who are incarcerated in federal prisons are there due to drug offenses and immigration violations.

So we still see, you know, the federal prison population rising. But the state prison population's beginning to decline. And that is reason for hope. But my concern is that the primary reason that legislatures have begun to ease up some of their harsh mandatory minimum sentences is not because of genuine concern for the people whose lives have been destroyed or the communities that have been decimated by the drug war. But instead these changes have been motivated largely because of the fiscal crisis.

BILL MOYERS: They can't afford these prisons anymore

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. These states find that there's no way to maintain these massive prison systems without raising taxes on the predominately white middle class. So they've been willing to downsize a bit.

BILL MOYERS: Well, take California. Former Governor Schwarzenegger said they had been investing too much in prisons and not enough in schools. But ultimately it turns out that what he was proposing wasn't altogether downsizing. It was privatizing the prison so that the responsibility for them was transferred to for-profit corporations. And I ask you what happens when there's a profit motive to send people to prison?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, when there's a profit motive it ensures that more and more people will be locked up and remain locked up in order for companies to maintain their profit margins. You know, the largest prison company, private prison company in the United States, The Corrections Corporation of America, sent a letter to 48 governors basically with an offer: we will buy your state-run prisons in exchange for a promise, a guarantee, that you will keep these prisons filled at least 90 percent capacity.

You know, these kinds of agreements and incentives are not in the public interest. You know, what would be in the public interest is, you know, a commitment to reducing crime so that our prison's empty. But instead, private prisons want a commitment from state governors that these prisons will be kept filled by any means necessary which virtually ensures a high-level of commitment by politicians to these get tough measures, mandatory sentences, war on drugs, to keep prison beds filled, so.

BILL MOYERS: In fact, Arizona, Oklahoma, Louisiana and I believe Virginia all have privatized prisons that are kept at 95 to 100 percent occupancy because they have guaranteed that occupancy to the private industry. Even if the crime rate falls.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, that's what's most worrisome is that they will insist and have insisted on keeping their beds full even if crime rates are relatively low. And today, you know, crime rates nationally are at historical lows. But incarceration rates are higher than they ever have been

BILL MOYERS: Well, some people argue, as you know, that the crime rate nationally is down because we've been locking up the people who commit the crimes.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, which has been proven to be demonstrably false. You know, if you look at the data it shows that, you know, states that have been on an incarceration binge do not necessarily have lower crime rates than states that have incarcerated people at a lower rate. There is no clear connection between incarceration rates and crime rates. And in fact, in cities like Chicago and in New Orleans, New Orleans is the incarceration capital of the world, you know, they have some of the highest violent crime rates in the country as well.

And the same can be said for Chicago. In fact, you know, a growing number of researchers and sociologists now believe that incarceration rate, high levels of incarceration, actually can be a contributor to high crime rates because you’re incarcerating such a large percentage of a community or a population, you're ensuring that people are going to be locked out of work and locked out of housing and living, you know, in a state of desperation for the rest of their lives.

So I would hope that as we build this movement to end mass incarceration, we will not be tempted to make purely fiscal arguments about the need for reform but ensure that the way we engage in our advocacy helps to inspire much greater care, compassion and concern for the very people who have been locked up, locked out and that we have been taught to despise.

BILL MOYERS: But when you look back historically at slavery, condoned by many people who quoted the bible, when you look at what happened after the Civil War. It took the Civil War to free the slaves and then they were put back into a form of slavery with a coerced labor, forced labor.

And use of Jim Crow laws, you referred to. You look at the racial violence that extended right on through our time. Where do you get any hope that this ideal of compassion, that we can create a society, such as you describe, given our conflicted, often savage past?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I get my hope from this revolutionary idea that doesn't seem to die in the United States. This idea that all people are created equal with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That was a revolutionary idea in the Declaration of Independence. And it was wholly incomplete. It was all men are created equal and implicitly slaves were left out, you know, poor people were left out.

BILL MOYERS: Women were left out.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Women were left out. Right. But it was a revolutionary idea then and it remains a revolutionary idea today. This idea that keeps changing and growing and expanding as our consciousness changes and grows and expands that all human beings are created equal and have certain inalienable rights, it won't die. It didn't die with slavery, you know, a war was necessary to end slavery. But this idea has continued to survive and it's continued to grow. And we see now that in the United States we do believe that women are equal. We have an idea that people of all races are created equal. We are now beginning to see that depending on, regardless of your sexual orientation, you are equal.

This idea itself has not died. And so I think the worst thing we can do is to fall into a sort of cynicism where we imagine nothing can ever be done. You know, these new systems of control just keep being born. This is just part of human nature. Well, it may be part of human nature to fear one another. But there is also a part of human nature I believe that wants to see the equality, even divinity, in each other and to honor it. And that spirit remains alive in the United States today. And if we give up on it then I think we're giving up on the dream of truly thriving equitable multiracial, multiethnic democracy.

BILL MOYERS: Michelle Alexander, thank you very much for being with me.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me.

Segment: Michelle Alexander — Locked Out of America

After civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander published her book The New Jim Crow in 2010 on our dehumanizing system of incarceration, she ignited a national conversation about justice in America and sparked a movement. In her book, Alexander explores how the war on drugs, “get-tough” sentencing policies and racism has created a caste system similar to that of our segregationist past.

Since then, Alexander has traveled the country to meet advocates and everyday Americans working to end mass incarceration in America — home to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, despite representing only five percent of the world’s population.

She tells Bill that she has seen a grassroots movement brewing in communities across the country, “There are enormous victories that are being achieved precisely because the people whom we have written off and viewed as disposable are reclaiming their voice, standing up, speaking out, organizing even as they struggle to survive.”

Producer: Gail Ablow. Intro Producer: Robert Booth. Editor: Rob Kuhns.

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  • Steve

    I think its interesting Ms. Alexander answers the question about maintaining prison populations by stating crime rates have gone down and then answers the question about incarcerating for longer sentences with the crime rate has gone up. It made me turn the show off because no matter how eloquent you speak you can’t have it both ways.

  • johnnyomaha

    Yes I dont understand the Love Black People show Bill Clinton,at time for some reason we as a people seem to be stuck Mentally….

  • Erik

    Love Michelle Alexander. However, I wish Alexander and Moyers would have started with a set up the context before going into detail about the plight of felons. Starting with sympathy for criminals without first giving the historical context may rub people the wrong way. I’m probably just worrying too much. I haven’t seen this problem in other interviews with Alexander. Wishing her all the best.

  • Erik

    There is an element of chicken and egg here, because correlation doesn’t mean causation. Crime/incarceration may correlate even more highly with poverty than race. Please link or reference any statistical evidence you know. I would really appreciate that.

    Alexander could be offering an explanation for why blacks are disproportionately impoverished (rather than incarcerated)–namely, racism leading to incarceration. The causal theory could be racism–>incarceration–>poverty. I would like to see empirical studies that address this causal chain.

  • Anonymous

    Please Mr. Moyers, throw your hat into the ring in 2016. Win or loose, your direct participation will do this nation some good.

  • bountyslacker

    Michelle Alexander deserves a Nobel Prize for her book “The New Jim Crow”. I read it and it changed my life.

  • Anna James

    Innocent and poor is the formula for decades of federal prison in South Dakota were the Indian wars are still not over and racism alive and well in the legal system Please share our story.

    We advocate for a factually innocent man who needs help, he has been in prison for 20 years, he is native american and it seems the race is the problem here. Looking for federal appeal atty but we also have a class and a rico. I would be honored if you would take a look please.

  • Babette

    Now they charge them with conspiracy and make them plea out, even thou there is very little evidence to obvious lies, and tell these young people they’ll receive a life sentence the lease amount of drugs. Fight the “War on Poverty” maybe so many wouldn’t turn to selling drugs. Please Ms Alexander continue to speak out … most love peace

  • Carol Murchie

    My flippant side says, “Forget Hilary, this woman is worthy of being a leader of America.” Then I think, maybe that isn’t so flippant.

  • Simon McKenna

    Yes – that’s not flippant

  • Rocky

    If you don’t want to go to prison, don’t commit crimes. Taxpayers like me are sick and tired of paying to arrest, defend, prosecute, incarcerate, feed & counsel criminals.


    I been crying out LOUD GOD there still is THE AUDACITY OF HUMANITY SOME WHERE IN AMERICA! A second class American Latino citizen a Victim of DHS ICE Agents abuse like 1,000 under OBAMA 2013

  • Anonymous

    Thank you. You have expressed my feelings more elegantly than I possibly can. As a disillusioned political activist – I am well aware of how screwed we truly are. I can now understand how the German people could claim that they didn’t know.

    After years of protests, petitions, progressive candidate support I’ve turned all my energy and limited money to small holding farming and networking others in my town doing the same.

    Although Moyers & Company is not easily available in my area I search it out. Just so that I can hear ‘people smarter than me’ express the truth we can get no where else.

    Thanks, Dave.

  • Anonymous


  • IM

    Thank you so much. What an extraordinary and inspirational segment. Again, thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Crime rates have fallen while incarceration periods have lengthened.

    For example … In Group A: 100 felons are sentenced to 10 years each — or 1000 cumulative years.
    In Group B: crime rate has fallen to 50 felons, but mandatory sentencing requires 30 yrs each — or 1500 cumulative years.

    A careful read of the transcript will show that incarceration rate was NOT equated with an increase in the crime rate, but rather the attempt to keep private prison beds full, even if crime rates were low.

    Mandatory sentencing combined with private prison contracts that require 90 to 95% occupancy are causing many states to go broke including my state of Oklahoma.

  • Anonymous

    I think the most salient point in Professor Alexander’s book is her description of her epiphany, when a young man who had been the victim of endless racial profiling, who had exhaustively documented the practice, and whom she anticipated being the lead plaintiff in her ACLU suit against the practice, revealed he had once been convicted.

    She was ready to drop him and he confronted her with the hypocrisy of that withdrawal. Then the light went on. She realized that she had internalized the very argument that was created by the forces of oppression, that someone with a conviction was less worthy than one who hadn’t been. The man’s circumstances, his race, economic and social status made it almost a certainty that he would be convicted for something at some point.

    She has come to a second such epiphany: It is that not only are African American men and women so immensely the disproportionate victims of the carcerel state, but immigrants are so also. We have 30,000 immigrants in “detention” at any one time, and an immense number doing ten years in the federal pen for two illegal border crossings. The latter victims of economic injustice and racism have quickly become the dominant demographic in the for-profit prison gulag, individuals who were refugees from economic injustices perpetrated, especially thanks to the eminently predictable effects of NAFTA, upon decent human beings who have been motivated by nothing more sinister than a desire to support their families through hard work.

  • Anonymous

    Tell us how many crimes you’ve committed, Rocky? How many times have you cheated on your taxes? How many times have you driven home after four beers? Have you ever smoked any reefer? Hit your wife or girl friend? Ignored a woman who said “no” to sex? We’d like to know.

  • Anonymous

    It’s worse than you can imagine in Oklahoma. Governor Mary Fallin has turned the prison system over to the for-profit prison industry, after it had bought her, at least one other Governor and so many legislators off, over the past 20 years.

    Oklahoma also has the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita rate of incarcerating women in the world!

  • Anonymous

    You could start by reading Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization as well as Discipline and Punish and working forward. Seriously, unless you want to write a thesis on the subject, you should find materials aplenty by just Googling “economics” or “poverty” and then “incarceration.”

  • Erik

    Yeah, I suppose Michelle Alexander should have just done the same thing–read Foucault and a little research, and be done with it. Then she would have a better empirical case for the implicit causal chain in her argument. Overcoming the dominant distortion of communication is merely a matter of a simple web search. I usually don’t resort to sarcasm. It’s not respectable, horizontal discourse. But seriously. Anyway, your point would be well taken if you did a simple search and provided a couple of links. The causal theory I mentioned, by the way, was racism–>incarceration–>poverty, not merely incarceration–>poverty.

  • Anonymous

    Right. That’s the theory and for expounding upon it, you could go to Cloward and Piven or back to the late 19th Century to read Jane Addams.
    I’m not going to do your homework for you, sonny. You know how to Google.

  • Erik

    That’s a good point. The causal theory I mentioned was racism–>incarceration–>poverty, not merely incarceration–>poverty. That was the more important point of my previous reply.

  • Anonymous

    Okay. I take back my own sarcasm.
    Good hunting.

  • Guest

    I revoke my sarcasm too. Thanks!

  • Brent Richeson

    This whole episode riveted me and literally brought tears to my eyes. I’m planning on taking a trip to L.A. and meet with Susan .. see what I can do to help. ~~ Apart from that, I am revisiting the maxim, “think globally and act locally.” ~~ To anyone commenting or seeing this comment, I have a direct connection to your plight. I’m hoping for a national rethink on the policies we’ve put in place. I hope that the voiceless gain a stronger voice. ~~ I thank all that brought this segment to air. We need these stories and we need to see them in daylight. Hope y’all understand my meaning. My wish to better days for all. -B

  • MKerby1

    Love your message, Babette. But just so you know, the war on poverty was before the war on drugs and that turned out to be a war ON the POOR. Lets not go there. Bad things will continue with out of touch politicians and people who have invested themselves in the injustice system, ie lawyers, judges, cops, clerks..have formed their GANGS and uphold everything broken and unjust and promote more laws, making everyone eventually illegal. These systems we have are designed to funnel money from the majority to a very few with a lot of pockets between. And if you wanna change the status quo to build something better, you will incur the wrath of the INJUSTICE SYSTEM, SO WE ARE ALL ILLEGALS HERE! Those brave souls who bother to stand up against the wrong, must be applauded, not isolated thru incarceration.

  • MKerby1

    Great a analysis, Dave.
    Many are awake, and many are waking up and others are getting that personal fist to face up close first hand experience with the systems working against us. Love everything you said brother! We need to build our own systems beside the ones that are working AGAINST US! That takes work and consistency. You can’t find the answer in one individual, but find like minded individuals and plan strategies, and develop our own system that enables individuals to add their work according to their abilities and level of commitment. That takes only a few committed to build that army. But that’s the work for our future benefit. And the process needed to sustain the change, a true democracy.

  • Anonymous

    that’s sad to hear but you can thank your “fellow” ex cons for the fair perception that the risk is not worth it.

  • Erik

    I agree that the causal chains can be complicated.

  • Anonymous

    No more than if you drive without liability insurance.

  • Anonymous

    I foresee revolution and it is going to be bloody. I think that’s the reason for the militaristic domestic police forces.
    I really think that we are going to see some very bad times.

  • Anonymous

    Considering how many innocent people are sitting in prison, this damned important.
    They can’t find employment, housing, or a path to a new life.
    If we really were a moral nation, which we are not, we would give them a second chance, like we used to.
    Not now, Now we want them to be permanently a part of an underclass that will fill those private prisons that blight the face of or nation.

  • David Wierda

    How does Ban the Box help much when background checks in the Internet Age now go back for at least all of your adult life, even if that’s 20 or 30 years? I know all kinds of people who can get a job but then can’t ever really move up in an organization because sooner or later a background check that goes back forever will likely cost them their job and at least cap their progress.

  • Erik

    Then there’s the problem that your record is documented typically in a publicly accessible manner.

    Alleviating the socially negative outcomes of incarceration is great, but eliminating unnecessary incarceration–for example, for victimless crimes like recreational drug use (and prostitution, Canada?)–is even better.

  • Erik

    That’s why decriminalizing victimless things like peaceful recreational drug use is more important than merely mitigating the socially negative outcomes of incarceration.

  • Dennis Smith

    Listening to Michelle, it is hard not to have empathy for those she represents. Then I watch the many shows about prison life and I see mostly violent, social deviants. I am sure Michelle’s people exist and are in need. I am not sure the premise of Bill’s article, that the country is locking to many people based on racism only is accurate. The book simply is not finished from this brief exposure. Salutations to Michelle for her efforts. My first reaction is that we need more people like Michelle, not that we need to lock up fewer people.

  • Al Mouyal

    Bill, why are they not talking about the fact that the prison in Amirica are know run and owned by wall street and driven by profit.. With out incarcerating people their is no profit. This has got to have something to do with this problem, don’t you think?

  • VCubed

    How nice not to “see” the racism in how, despite equal amount of drug use among races, there is massive disproportionate imprisonment of blacks and Latinos for the same non-violent crimes. If you were a man of color with a son, you’d see it, even if your son were in college, as mine was when he was profiled.

  • Dennis Smith

    As much as I respect the work of Bill Moyers, I do not respect this interview/article with Michelle Alexander which is portraying a society that is incarcerating young black men for no reason other than racial discrimination. That simply is not true. What is true, is that Michelle, in an effort to promote her honorable work has created a straw man story that suggests it is true and both Bill and Michelle have not yet defused that premise.

  • Anonymous

    my Aunty Addison got an
    awesome blue Mercedes M-Class ML63 AMG by working part-time online. published
    here J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

  • W L Simpson

    prisons are over full because our basic educational system failed to prepare them for legitimate self support.

  • Ryan Porter

    This issue is addressed in the book, and is addressed in this interview as well. Specifically in this interview, Alexander addressed the privatization of prisons in California, and how it is absolutely not in the interest of the public to commit to a large prison population, but is quite the opposite.

  • Anonymous

    The overincarceration of young black men is not driven by a single decision, but rather a complex series of decisions by many different actors which are heavily weighted against persons of color. They include police, district attorneys, grand juries, defense attorneys, judges, etc.
    In Chicago, a dozen years ago, a study was done that showed that black juvenile arrestees, matched for history and offense, were 48 times as likely as whites to received the worst possible outcome, referral to adult courts. Hispanics were 17 times as likely as whites to get similar referrals.
    When offenders are convicted and subsequently released, their options have become severely limited, compared to those treated differentially by that system. It affects their employment, domicile, education, credit history, etc. Recidivism is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  • James Clark

    This book is outstanding! I couldn’t put it down, though I was compelled on occasion to throw it across the room…

  • zflynn2

    Not only would a revolution be nightmarish, hideously ugly and very, very bloody; the chances are extremely high afterwards things will be far, far worse than they are now. As Oscar Schindler said “War always brings out the worst in others. Never the good, always the bad. ALWAYS the bad.”

  • zflynn2

    I think the battle to defeat criminal profiteering and the march to Oligarchy was lost the moment every member of Congress and the vast majority of the public ignored President Eisenhower’s warning that the biggest danger facing America was its own profiteering Military Industrial Complex. Even the “liberals” vote in favor of every contrived war for profit almost every single time.

  • Christopher Wilk

    Outstanding Interview I must get this Book.

  • Pierre

    She’s an Angel

  • AmeriCaribbean

    The U.S. “War on Drugs” has always been used to justify foreign intervention, primarily to divide Latin America and Caribbean peoples against each other.

  • Zevi Kramer

    i work, as a volunteer, with people in three prisons
    and what i see missing is speaking into the following: what i care, these people are criminals and a criminal is always a criminal. or they deserve it or stop crying. you are responsible for your situation.
    thank you for what you are doing and i am available for an elaborate conversation that might make a difference in the effectiveness of the conversations.

  • clearview30

    Prisons are an instrument used to remove the economic, political and social freedoms of African Americans. Thie prison sysyem is not only the new Jim Crow, but this octopus reaffirms the title of another great book, “Slavery By Another Name.”

  • fass52

    I read your story. You’re stupid!

  • fass52

    Also, if you were put behind bars like that you would act like that too.

  • Kingsley A. Rowe

    Your ignorance shows, troll!

  • fass52

    Correction…. You’re ignorant at the age of 20 playing around with a pistol and kill your friend. Now you’re sitting around smiling as if it never happened! Stop replying you dumbo!

  • Dean Libey

    Mr. Moyers, Ms. Alexander thanks for a engaging discussion and the work you do. “Slavery By Another Name.” Excellent book.

  • LeJewel
  • yeah yeah

    She is pointing out the disproportionate number of blacks locked up in comparison to their demographics in the US. I don’t understand why that’s so difficult for you to get. Look the statistics up for yourself.

  • yeah yeah

    The lady has a name: Michelle Alexander.

  • drkrick

    That reaction should probably tell you more about yourself than about Ms. Alexander’s work. And how long did it take you to figure out that a book called “The New Jim Crow” might be about “a black issue”?

  • worldsgonemad

    This has always been a socio economic status issue. For many in the black community, who have historically been at the lower end of this spectrum, the target.

    Now, however, the dramatic degradation of the economy is descending more and more people of ALL colors in to poverty status. This change makes this issue just as important if not more important than ever. An “arrest now, ask questions later” protocol is very dangerous to ALL citizens.

    Sadly, it may be the encompassing now of people of all colors in this targeting protocol that brings it, finally and rightly, to the forefront of the national dialog. A place it should have been all along.

  • Pete Walrath

    Rocky, that is a useless stance and honestly your self-righteous pomp is disgusting. Just to pick a war, drug addiction is a disease, an epidemic fed in part by a sick society – which is in part symptomatic of the every-man-for-himself attitude which is unfortunately still held on to by people like yourself. We are all connected, and deserving of love, help, forgiveness, second chances… It’s mentalities such as yours which are the main cause of most of the problems of humanity as a whole. Evolve, brother. Please.

  • Anonymous

    This would not occur without a corrupt judiciary. The judges know when someone is being railroaded and they go along with it. The even help by witness intimidation, allowing manufactured evidence, prosecutors who commit perjury, lying jailhouse informants. Most judges are former DAs and they cheated when they were DAs and the continued the tradition when they are judges.

    The cost to the America in terms of lost productivity is actually in the trillions of dollars which makes us all poorer as the nation is poorer. However, people prefer vengeance, eve if it’s against innocent people, over “truth justice and the American way.”

  • Anonymous

    Please obtain facts before you post. California needs more immigrants Manhattan Inst. Sept 2012 The Great California Exodus

    The problem is not the number of people in California but the recent concentration of people in Transit Oriented Districtts [TODs]. These pockets of extreme dense population disrupt the entire system just as blockage in an artery can kill someone.

  • Jerry Fair

    The fact is overpopulation is a serious problem. Just ask the Chinese or
    India or various other areas of the world where your next meal is not
    known for sure. California would benefit from a 40 to 50 percent
    reduction in population. That is not going to happen without some
    natural disaster or a war. The drought could impact population or at
    least slow the exponential increase going on. Short of that we are
    headed toward a real problem in the not too distant future. The easiest
    way to slow population would be to stop all immigration. Not just the
    illegal immigration but the legal immigration as well. Stop it all
    before it’s too late.

  • Anonymous

    You live in a world of myths devoid of facts. China’s birth rate is so low that it has fallen below replacement levels. In 1798 Malthus said the same thing that your saying and yet, the world is not destroyed by over population. For much of the world, here worry is about UNDER population.

    As birth rare falls, the number of working age people compare to the number of elderly falls so that there will be fewer working people supporting more older people. While there are solutions to this problem, one solution is NOT to pretend that an increasing population is a problem. Only Africa has a projected larger population, but populations do not follow a straight line trajectory.

    Urban areas do have a planning problem when they create special areas called TODs for extra heavy population. They act like clogged arteries which make city wide transportation very arduous.

  • Jerry Fair

    I don’t know where you get your nutty ideas but to say increasing population is not a problem has no basis in fact. For example look at the water shortage in California. That is due mainly to increases in population. We have had droughts before but this state did not have any problems dealing with it. Now thanks to millions of new residents sucking up water the water tables are down dramatically and the lakes and reservoirs look like ponds. We are a year away for a crisis. Ask anyone who has studied this states water shortage and they will point to over population as the route cause. We have an exponential increase in world population that is unsustainable. Today we have about 5 to 6 billion people on earth. In 2020 that will be 8 billion and much of that increase will happen in poor under developed countries so expect an increase in starvation.

  • Anonymous

    You should find out the facts and learn some logic. The CA drought was not caused by the population. It is either part of Climate Change or part of weather cycle that oeprates on the span of hundreds or perhaps thousands of year. If there not a single person in California, the drought would have come.

    People use about 4% of the water. The rest is used by agribusiness and industry. They chose to plant water intense crops and use undue amounts of water rather than modernize techniques or pay for water recycling.

    The increased population is not the origin of the population.

    If one were to assume that an increased population were the origin of the problem, California has ceased to be a destination state.

    Furthermore, the fact California has a weather cycle does not mean that America or the world has too many people.

    Please take the time to learn the facts and learn to think logically.

  • Anonymous

    The fact that other Americans allow this criminal use of the so-called Justice System discredits Americans as a whole. As Abe Lincoln said, when one has the people’s sentiment nothing is impossible, but without it, nothing is possible.

    We incarcerate so many minorities while providing them sub-sub-par education is a reflection of the sentiment of the general public.

    The joke is on the Whites, especially the tea baggers, as the 1% are merely perfcting the system that they will soon be using against anyone who doesn’t fall into line.