Racism & Gangs


Racism in The Prison System

Alyce Wengelewski


Racism is one of the main issues facing the Criminal Justice System in the United States.  Race is socially constructed on an individual basis and often ends up defining, and at times even separating people into categories depending on their physical features, phenotype, and ancestry.  The concept of race is something that mankind has created in order to place individuals in certain positions or places in society.  The history of racism, or the practice of open discrimination against another human being solely based on the color of their skin, pervades deeply in American society.  Only since the 1960s has every race had equal opportunities.  This equality was a slow struggle that was not accepted by the general white population.  It has been almost 50 years since the civil rights movement, yet there are still many people who believe that one race is superior to another.  Feelings of disdain for equality and intermixing of races pervades in every part of society, especially in the criminal justice system and the prisons.  There are many racial categories in the U.S. yet the three major racial groups are whites, blacks, and Hispanic or Latino/a.  To gain a better understanding of the issues, each faction will be looked at closely as to how they are treated in society at large, and within the criminal justice system.

For many years the United States was racially categorized into whites, blacks, and Native Americans.  The white people, more commonly known as Anglo-Saxons, were once considered superior and the U.S. was a nation of white America.  Currently this is less true then it was in the past, yet there is still a large gap of advantages between races.  An example of this is the rate of incarceration of white males and females in the United States; overall whites have a 1 in 23 chance of being arrested and going to prison.  This may appear to be a small ratio but when compared with other races it is quite an immense difference.  Not only do white people have less of a chance of being arrested but they also enjoy more perks while in prison and less discrimination from guards and those in authority. 

The statistical updates for the United States also shows that people categorized as white have more and better options before they are incarcerated. As the Statistical Updates states, only 15 percent of white Americans are living without health insurance, 16% have not graduated from high school, and 11 percent live below the poverty line.  These numbers may appear to be large and outrageous but in comparison with other races they are not.  These factors about life before one enters prison may have a great deal to do with why one is incarcerated in the first place.  It could be simply because when one has less education and money that they are therefore more likely to lead a life of crime, or live a life on the streets.  This raises a matter of equality not only in the criminal justice system, but also in society at large.  There is no way to stop crime if inequality is still pervasive.  

Now on the other side there is the story of black America who fought for so many years to be free and equal with the rest of society.  Most of the black people who came into the United States during the slave trade were forced against their own will and were subjected to much less then humane living conditions as slaves on huge plantations.  There has constantly been a force of oppression on black Americans in the United States, even more so when one considers the criminal justice system.  The rate of incarceration for a black American is a 1 in 4 chance.  As the Bureau of Justice and Statistics states, “African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned by racist drug laws, denied access to the economic and educational benefits enjoyed by Angle-Americans, and robbed of their civil rights and human dignity by a pervasive white supremacy that lurks just beneath the surface of our so-called democracy”(1).  When comparing the rates of incarceration of black to white the differences are shocking.


One can look at the statistics and see this to be fairly true.  African-Americans represent 48.2 percent of American adults in State or Federal prisons and local jails, and 42.5 percent of prisoners receiving the death sentence. Making up almost half of the prison statistics it is vital to know that those considered black only make up 12.7 percent of the countries total population. Incarceration and prison rates in the U.S. are disproportionate according to these statistics.  Many scholars such as Steve Malik Shelton believe that this is no accident and is the result of society’s action or rather inaction.  Statistical Abstract of the United States shows that 21.5 percent blacks have no health insurance, 24 percent over the age of 25 have not graduated from high school, and 26.5 percent live below the poverty line.  In comparison with whites, there is a stark difference between these statistics.  Urban areas where black people live have become enclaves of violence and economic and social decay, and not many are aware of this or want to implement change.  Shelton said, “The larger society is quite removed from the grim life circumstances and daily degradations experienced by poor Blacks, and hence the average American has little real feeling for the forces that shape their lives.”  This says quite a bit about the criminal justice system, whether they would like to admit it or not incarceration rates for black people are unjust, and most definitely unequal.

Black Americans are not the only group in society to feel the uneven pressure from the criminal justice system.  The fastest growing demographic in the United States, Latinos or Hispanics, are also subject to this unreasonable organization.  From the very beginning of their existence in the southwest, in what was originally Mexico, the U.S. forces came down upon the Mexicans taking their land from them and looking at them as outsiders.  Today these racist sentiments still pervade with new laws that are made to keep the boarder safe and other political legislation of policy makers.  Yet other outside forces are also pressing down on the Hispanic population as many live in poverty, unemployment, and lack of educational opportunity.  Looking at their societal statistics puts them lower on the scale then both blacks and whites.  As the Statistical Abstract of the United States presents; 34.2 percent of Latinos have no health insurance, 44.5 percent of Latinos age 25 and older have not graduated from high school, and a staggering 27.1 percent of Latinos live below the poverty line. 

Now, unlike the black population who seems to be targeted for incarceration, the Latino population is somewhat less astonishing.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin as of 1998 holds that even though Latinos represent only 11.1 percent of the total American population.  Shockingly 18.6 percent of all inmates are Latino and of Latinos in prison 22.5 percent of sentenced State prisoners convicted of a drug offense.  Yet again it appears that because of societal factors Hispanics are more likely to be incarcerated and have some type of criminal charge held against them.  Another thing to think about is the fact that many of these Latinos may not even be naturalized citizens, with that in mind is it truly even fair that the criminal justice system feels the need to send someone who is not a citizen of the U.S. to prison.  This is another matter completely, but it may reveal why there are inequalities between Latinos and other races in the U.S.

All of the accumulated data reveals that racism is such a dilemma in the criminal justice system, yet there are few people who are willing to make a change, in fact many are oblivious that this problem exists.  These findings may also imply that great social and economic inequality in this “land of the free” leads to higher crime rates and therefore higher incarceration rates.  The root of racism has less to do with the color of ones skin and more with their socio-economic status in society.  The scales are tipped in favor of those classified as whites, which brings to light a great deal about humanity.  Although it has been about 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement the U.S. still struggles with racism.  It all comes down to the fact that some people are given better opportunities then others, and therefore those with more reap the benefits. Fixing the inequality should not be the only issue humanity addresses but also what these uneven incarceration rates mean for future generations.  We need to make a great change in our society otherwise racism will persist in all facets of life.  In reality, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It should not matter the color of ones skin but the content of ones character”.  Taking his words to heart maybe one day we will be able to overcome this stigma.     


Give Them Something Better

Addolfo Davis, Menard Correctional Center 


You say it is gangs that have our communities in the conditions they are in and that it needs to stop, and I agree with you.  Well, give them something better than what they have.

Children just don’t join the gang because they think it is cool.  They join the gang because 90 percent of them in the gang are going through something emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  They come from unstable homes: fathers or mothers on drugs, or just single mothers with so much on their plate that they don’t have time to share with her kids, or both parents are alcoholics or on drugs.  So who better to turn to than children who are going through the same thing they are going through?

Gangs, as much as it is wrong, become their family and the streets become their home.  They are getting the love and support from the gang members, something they weren’t getting from home.  So, they are happy now with the false reality because that is the only love they have ever known.

So how can we continue to just blame the gangs, when that is all they know?  The gangs keep a roof over their head, news cloths on their back, keep their stomach full, and protect them when at home all they get is hurt emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

So when we say lets stop the gangs from killing our children the truth is they ere dead way before they joined a gang.  Our children went to the gang for a reason and it is a sad truth, but we need to start pointing the finger where it belongs and that’s at the parents.

We need to go in the homes of our children and teach our parents how to be parents and that is the only way that we will stop the gangs from growing.  We can’t continue to blame the gangs for the problems of our communities because the problem starts at home.   If we want our communities to get better, we must give our children something better, something better than what they are running to.



Crime Changes in the Far Chicago Suberbs

Editorial: Lauren Renner

When Detective Susan Ellis began working for the Cary Police Department six years ago, she was all too familiar with the town she had grown up in.  In the two years since she became a detective, though, she has encountered more than the typical citizen might expect.

“Every day is different,” she said.  “When I was a road cop, I would spend most of my day dealing with traffic violations and processing any calls from the previous night.  The night shift always gets the calls on domestic abuse or public drunkenness.  But now that I’m a detective, I spend my time interviewing suspects, witnesses and victims and processing any evidence that we may have obtained.”

The domestic abuse calls were initially difficult for Detective Ellis:  “A lot of these calls are a spouse coming home drunk, but even more are between a parent and child.  It was hard at first, but you learn to do what you need to do to help the people involved.”

But even the type of crime has changed. For the first time since Cary, Ill. was founded in the late 1800s, gangs have become a problem consuming the attention of both the public and the police force.  While crime does occur in smaller towns like this one, theft and domestic issues always ranked at the top of the list.  Until now.  Most recently taking up the officers’ time is gang violence occurring at one of Cary’s neighborhood parks.  “It’s mostly between less prominent gangs with a few other big ones mixed in.  I don’t believe it’s escalated to knives or firearms yet; mostly garden tools are used.  They just meet and start fighting.”

To a small town with little evident violence, this is a rapid change.  Fifty miles northwest of Chicago, Cary is a medium-sized suburb just far enough away to avoid the types of crimes prevalent in the much larger city.

And while gangs have existed in the suburbs for decades, they have never presented any dangers for others in these towns.  Why is gang life becoming more common in these smaller suburbs?  According to, the population in Cary was estimated at 30,438 in 2007 and was expected to continue increasing.  Will an increase in population and family size bring a higher rate of crime to these communities?

I asked Detective Ellis if there were any rewards for all this hard work:  “When you work in this field, you catch the bug and just have to keep doing it.  As a detective, I find out what happens to some of the people I bring in now.  When I was on the road, that wasn’t the case nearly as often.”

The changes Detective Ellis has experienced have not tempted her to look for a new career.  “I don’t think I’ll ever leave it,” she said.  “Unless I get to stay at home with my kids—sometimes it’s hard to deal with the things I see, but my co-workers and husband are great when I need to talk about it.  I love what I do.”

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