When I first read The New Jim Crow, a book about how drug laws actually serve many of the same uses as Jim Crow laws, I was absolutely electrified, but frustrated that most people who don’t have the time or focus to get through a fairly academic book wouldn’t get to experience it. That’s why I’m so thrilled that this documentary is now on Netflix, since it covers a lot of the same ground (and, actually, includes interviews with the author of The New Jim Crow). It should be required viewing in every school in America. It’s named 13th, after the constitutional amendment which abolished slavery with one very important and significant caveat. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The film, produced by Ava DuVernay (of Selma fame), centers on the role of incarceration in America. But it goes far beyond that. Anyone who argues that more black men are in jail because they’re just more criminal (an argument I’ve heard depressingly often, even in the supposed liberal bastion where I live) should be encouraged to see this doc. (But, alas, they’re probably the least likely to watch it). It’s well-done, meticulously researched and devastating. From 200,000 prisoners to nearly 2 million today, the U.S. incarceration rates have increased 500% since 1970, despite FBI crime statistics showing a decrease in nearly all crimes. We are 4.4% of the world’s population but have 22% of the world’s incarcerated people.
Are we more prone to violent crime? In fact, the main expansion of incarceration was in non-violent, drug-related offenses, due to mandatory minimums and drug sentencing laws. And the privatization of jails doesn’t help. Wherever there is a profit motive, there is the capacity for abuse. There are certain things that shouldn’t be left open to the free market, and the grave decision of whether to incarcerate our citizens is one of those things. Never mind that as an engine of disenfranchisement, incarceration works better than just about anything else. Label someone a felon in their teens, take away their right to vote for life, and then ask yourself how many people would be willing to take up their fight? Not many.
All of this and much more is covered in 13th, a searing and unwavering look at some of the ugliest injustices in our country. It’s difficult to watch, but important. Here’s my social justice prescription: watch 13th, read The New Jim Crow, and Chasing the Scream (about the failed War on Drugs) and let’s go out and fix this crazy experiment we call America. We can do better.
Click here to learn more about this film, which is already getting Oscar buzz. Then log into your Netflix account and watch it today!