One day when I was a kid my brother and I cut school together. We decided with our infinite wisdom that we would use our lunch money to hang out at the mall. It didn’t take long before we realized that hanging at the mall during school hours with no money was boring as hell. To stretch our money, we didn’t buy food that day. We walked up and down the food court and ate samples until we were full. Full of boredom and mini cups of sesame chicken I decided it was time for nap. Of course it was still too early to go back home and risk our brilliantly laid plan being foiled. Having my mother catch us creeping in the house in the middle of the afternoon wasn’t an option. But you know what was an option? Taking a nap in the display bed in the middle of Sears Department Store. I made a full attempt to go all INNN. I pulled the covers back and slid in between the sheets while my brother laughed hysterically. The nap lasted maybe 15 minutes before security kicked us out. The security guards, probably in his early twenties shook his head but behind his eyes hid a desire to join my brother in his laughter. It was the best of times. That light hearted memory of my brother will probably have to last me a lifetime. Not long after that incident my brother entered the seemingly never-ending cycle of incarceration.
With every prison sentence he grew colder, more distant and less mentally stable. With every prison visit I grew more angry, emotional and adamant about making this my last trip. Every time I submitted to the disrespectful treatment that family members receive in the visiting rooms of a prison I promised myself that it would be my last time. I swore that I would never exchange my dignity for 45 minutes with a loved one again. A person should never be asked to make such an exchange. Being screamed at like a child and treated like a prisoner when your only crime was loving your brother is enough to make a person want to erupt. Yet that wasn’t an option if I didn’t want my visit terminated. So I did what every other voluntary inmate in that visiting lobby did; we lowered our heads and pride and responded, “yes sir officer” when a directive was screamed at us. Those correction officers, probably in their late 30s, looked at us with disgust for just being present, and behind their eyes hid a glimpse of delight as they peered into our faces and saw the responses to their unchecked power. It was the worst of times. In hindsight I could’ve predicted this.
In the late 80s and early 90s the crack cocaine epidemic ravaged communities of color. The devastating domino effect was fast and strong. Families were broken, drug-addicted children were born and there was a huge surge in drug-related crimes. My family was not spared from the devastation. My mother, who probably coined the phrase “chile I don’t have the luxury to get caught up in foolishness” never even smoked a joint, hardly drank a beer and worked two jobs to provide for us. She did what was necessary as the sole provider in a single parent house that prided itself on never receiving public assistance. She literally worked day and night, and sometimes with no breaks in the middle. It was hard raising a family of four alone in New York. Money was tight and the little she could spare was no match for what my brother knew he could make in the streets. For my brother the math was simple. The massive availability of drugs in poor community congested with single parent homes equaled opportunity and money. What he could not have understood at the time was how the 1994 Crime Bill would factor into this equation.
The Clinton Crime Bill
Which comes first—societal changes or legislative change? Chicken or egg? Do changes in society affect how laws are created and imposed, or do legal changes affect how we live in society? The answers to those questions are blurred and layered. Within those layers, and even part of them, is the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
While my family dealt with the direct impact of the influx of drugs, politicians and law officials chose to not address how and why drugs were being shipped from foreign countries into communities of color. The legislative response was to become “tougher” on crime. Hence the birth of what is commonly called the 1994 crime bill, pushed by then-President Bill Clinton. The bill was the largest crime bill in the history of the U.S. Components of the bill included the elimination of inmate education, an increase in money allocated to build prisons, longer sentences for drug offenses, the expansion of the death penalty, the creation of the “three strikes” law, and the authorization of adult prosecution for those 13 years of age or older for certain crimes.
It is common knowledge that then-first lady Hillary Clinton was a great supporter of this bill and lobbied Congress to help ensure that it was passed. In her attempt to gather public support, she made speeches in which she referred to children as “superpredators,” a term coined by then-Princeton professor John Dilulio to describe “urban” (i.e., black and brown) youths, labeling them as criminals.
My brother, according to Clinton was a “superpredator”. Under the laws imposed by 1994 crime bill he received unreasonably long sentences for minor and drug offenses. Locked away in an overcrowded prison that was stripped of its potential to reform, he was released into the community more violent than when he was arrested. What was just politics for the Clintons was life changing for my family…and other families that looked like mine.
During the height of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, her support and lobbying of this bill became impossible to ignore. Organizations like BlackLivesMatter forced her to address it. Since then she has tried to distance herself from her “superpreditor” past and had greater discussion around prison reform. On a macro-level that could be meaningful. Yet on a micro-level, I can’t help but wonder who will reform my brother? It is almost impossible for me to hear her speak without remembering the years I had to exchange my dignity for a visit in a crowded prison lobby. I was never blind to the reality that drug dealers would serve time in prison. Yet I was also clear that the length of these sentences was blatantly imposed to target men of color. Is this the woman I am supposed to trust? Am I supposed to be with someone who was never with me? America, particularly white woman are reveling in the historical moment of having the first female nominee. I, on the other hand don’t share that pride. To quote a wise women I know, “chile I don’t have the luxury to get caught up in foolishness”. I simply don’t have the luxury to be excited. How exactly am I supposed to be excited when once again I am being asked to make an exchange that should never be required of anyone? I am being asked to exchange my vote for a candidate who has only been harmful to me in hopes of not getting a candidate who will be even worse. I am not with that. And I am not with her. I’m somewhere floating in that powerless feeling I had in that prison lobby making myself promises that I know I wont keep in November. Once again, I find myself wanting to just erupt and not vote. But what further human rights are at stake if I don’t?
Shanita Hubbard is a student of motherhood, passionate social justice advocate, and writer. She has a personal understanding of how families of color are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration, and has led a diverse, justice-centered career, from working as a therapist to youth on probation, operating job-readiness programs for formerly incarcerated adults, directing youth alternative-to-incarceration programs, and now working as a Criminal Justice Ethics Professor. Shanita earned her Bachelor’s of Science in Criminal Justice from Morris College and a Master’s of Science in Criminal Justice from Bowling Green State University. Her writing is featured in The Root, EBONY Magazine, Abernathy Magazine, and elsewhere.