Cost of prisonThe United States is a capitalistic driven democracy, where the marketplace is king and money is the horsepower that pulls dreams into reality. “Money, Power, Respect, Is The Key to Life,” rapped Lil’ Kim back in the 1990’s. With these few words she summed up the American philosophy of life. Personally, I don’t believe in this philosophy, but I fully understand it.

America was built off of profits made from the stolen bodies and labor of African hostages—slaves. History teaches us that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was about economics. As was the civil war and Jim Crow. Indeed, at the core of racism is economics and an unhealthy fear by white people of losing power to others—primarily African Americans.

In the U.S., the “almighty dollar” has always equaled freedom. Those with it are free to do as they please, and those without it are held captive by their impoverished circumstances. This dichotomy has created a sort of World War Z, where the haves build fortresses to protect their riches while the have-nots besiege them, trying to experience a little of their heaven on earth.

We have seen what happens when a person goes from rags to riches. Oprah Winfrey, Russell Simmons, Bob Johnson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Shawn Carter AKA Jay-Z, etc., all started from humble beginnings and shot up the ladder of success to become entertainment moguls and billionaire businessmen.

But what happens to a person with no money who is locked out of any meaningful opportunities to obtain it? American history claims that President Lincoln freed the slaves, but he freed them to do what? To remain a perpetual underclass battling a majority invested in their inequality and disenfranchisement?

Asked why he robbed banks, the notorious bank robber and kidnapper, John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. #1, famously replied, “because that’s where they keep the money.” The majority of the U.S. prison population is in prison due to economically related crimes. Simply put, a lack of opportunity plus poverty inspires people, like Dillinger, to commit crimes to obtain money. Money is not the end but the means. The end is to use their paper Lincolns (dollars) to free themselves from their prisons of poverty.

The byproduct of the government’s reactionary response to increases in crime has been the erection of the “Prison Industrial Complex.” Decades after its birth, it is evident that the crime problem cannot be solved by increasing prison rolls and building more prisons. The cost of building prisons and maintaining bloated prison populations have all but gutted states’ budgets.

It is now apparent to most that prisons are not the answer and that they have only operated to warehouse African Americans, Latinos, and poor whites. The prison experiment has been both a racist and classist endeavor. The people at the top — the rich, wealthy, and white privileged — have not been affected. Poor whites have been ruled out of this equation. In truth, impoverished whites of today are likely descendants of impoverished whites of yesterday.

In any event, prisons are big businesses. Prison industries are traded on Wall Street. Businesses like Keefe Supply Company have gotten fat off of the runaway prison gravy train. But making money off of prisons has not been on balance — how many African American or Latinos or poor whites have been invited to the party?

Trying to avert catastrophe, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has been calling for a major overhaul of the criminal justice system. He has asserted that racism, classism and a prisons-for-profit culture is misdirecting the criminal justice system and destroying our country’s future.

As a means to an end, Holder has advocated scaling back on the use of harsh sentencing for drug related offenses. Holder, as well as Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary, John Wetzel, have expressed the opinion that it is time to begin the reduction of prison populations and the closing down of prisons as opposed to building of new ones. However, that’s better said than done. Two new prisons are currently under construction on the grounds of SCI-Graterford.

The key to ending the prison nightmare is jobs and other opportunities. Since it is not in the interest of those who profit off of packed prisons to provide those jobs and opportunities, we have to create them ourselves.

I have long advocated self-sufficiency. Our example should be hip-hop. It burst onto the scene in the late 1970’s as a ghetto thing, it rose to the top of the American music industry. To date, Hip Hop has produced more rags-to-riches stories than any other industry. Like Jay-Z, Hip-Hop gives us a blueprint to follow.

Poor people, black, white, latino, can take a page from their play book. When society said Hip-Hop was nothing but a flash in the pan, they proved them wrong. They refused to give up and fought for their place at the table. That is what we have to do, fight for our place at the table.

It is time for us to break the chains of economic slavery that hold us down. We must open up our own businesses to stimulate our own job growth, and provide jobs for each other.

As the saying goes, “a rising tide raises all boats.” We can’t wait for anyone else to create an economic tide for our boats to be raised, it is up to us to create the tide that will raise our boats. Let’s trouble the waters.

Omar Askia Ali has been twice convicted of his role in the notorious robbery-murder of a furniture store in Pennsylvania. The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal judge’s order that would have given Sistrunk a third trial, based on evidence the prosecutor used race as a factor in choosing the all-white jury that convicted him. 


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Omar Askia Ali #AF0814

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Houtzdale, PA  16698-1000