The Grievances of African American Prisoners, and Politicians’ Failure at Reform

June 23, 2020 Updated: June 24, 2020


One positive aspect of having spent three years and two weeks incarcerated in U.S. federal prisons (for crimes I would never have dreamt of committing and of which I was ultimately acquitted and pardoned), was that it gave me considerable insight into the lives and treatment of lower-income African and Latino Americans.

I got on well in prison with all of my fellow residents and almost all of the so-called correctional staff, and apart from the fact that it was an outrage that I was there, I found it interesting and in some ways enjoyable.

To bolster my morale, I read the upbeat accounts of the prison life of Boethius prior to his execution, and of the slavery of the stoic Epictetus, as well as a splendid anthology of fine prison writing, sent to me just before I self-surrendered, by my late friend William Safire. (I had not realized that many of the celebrated people cited, including Miguel de Cervantes and Britain’s longest-serving prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, had ever been incarcerated).

As a Canadian, I got a pass on the natural friction between black and white prisoners as I was deemed to have been a non-combatant through the entire difficult legacy of race relations in the United States. My prison employment was as a tutor for all of those prisoners who hadn’t matriculated from secondary school, and under Bureau of Prisons rules, they were obligated to attempt to do so.

Tutoring in Prison

I was sent the candidates who had failed the classes the Bureau conducted, and I got to know hundreds of these men very well.

In every case, it was a matter of debriefing them when they sullenly arrived to see me by assuring them that this wasn’t another attempt by the regime to exploit and belittle them, that it wasn’t my concern whether they wished to make a serious effort or not as long as they didn’t disturb those who were trying to graduate, but that I was available to them if they wanted to outsmart our jailers and rejoin society with a foot on the up escalator and the possibility to make a survivable income in a way that didn’t lead directly back to such places as the one where we unhappily found ourselves.

They all claimed to have gotten to grade 10 or 11, but very few of them, (and there were approximately equally divided between black, white, and Latino men), could compose an English sentence. I recruited a former mathematics teacher and commodities trader (from Little Rock, Arkansas) and the former commander of the torpedo room of a nuclear submarine (from Chattanooga, Tennessee) as tutors in mathematics and the sciences, while I stuck to English.

I didn’t like school or most teachers that I had, but there are few things in my career of which I am prouder than the fact that all 204 of the lads I tutored did matriculate; an appreciable number went on successfully to university, some starting in correspondence courses from prison.

It was a pleasure and an honor to have assisted them.

African American Experience

Once I had earned their trust, they all tended to be quite loquacious. The common threads in the backgrounds of the African Americans were they rarely saw their fathers, were unclear in many cases as to who their fathers were, and most had a number of children with different women without benefit or any thought of wedlock.

The Great Society welfare programs had, in effect, rewarded promiscuous fathers by entitling them to a share of welfare payments for dependent children. In most cases, the proliferation of siblings and the limited ability of their mothers to earn enough to pay for the normal requirements of their truncated families commended amateur drug dealing as a well-paying form of unskilled labor.

Of course, in the so-called War on Drugs, the low-hanging fruit for the authorities was to cruise through the ghettos, round up people randomly, charge those in possession of illegal substances, and give them slap-on-the-wrist sentences in exchange for denunciations of those from whom they bought the drug.

My students had all been sitting ducks, had been thus denounced, had no defense nor any means to pay for a defense. They were oversentenced after being misled and deserted by the public defenders, who in these courts tend to be just stooges of the prosecutors. They arrived in prison unskilled, hostile, embittered, betrayed, and facing unpromising horizons.

Some were innocent, some convicted of ridiculous offenses, and almost all were oversentenced. They were almost unanimous in having been roughly treated by the police, even when they were clean of drugs and engaged in innocuous behavior. They were subject to detention and interrogation and, to use the current euphemism, “disrespected.”


They arrived in prison cynically disillusioned with the entire justice system and white-dominated society in general. After I overcame their initial reticence, they looked upon me as a somewhat exotic representative of a world of which they had had even less knowledge than I had had of theirs.

They uniformly regarded the police as dishonest, trigger-happy, rough with them physically, very often racially hostile, and lacking a normal sense of humanity. Even allowing for self-serving exaggeration and the insalubrity of lower-income African American neighborhoods, and conceding the difficulties the police have in protecting law-abiding people in such areas, I have no doubt that there is considerable room for improvement in the techniques of policing in these areas.

I also consider that the war on drugs is largely a farce, riddled with corruption, and substantially unsuccessful. If the United States government were serious in its war on drugs, it would be as vigilant and ambitious in prosecuting middle-class users, including in the universities as they are in the ghetto, and they would deploy forces adequate to prevent wholesale importation of drugs by land, sea, and air into the United States from Latin America.

The Latinos, generally, weren’t as alienated from the justice system, and their family backgrounds, largely due to their Catholicism, were more stable and supportive. They or their families had come voluntarily to the United States and weren’t burdened with the legacy of slavery, the consequences of which are so vivid in the consciousness of my African American fellow inmates.

Reform Hopes Disappointed

I was in prison when Barack Obama was elected president, and it was a matter of immense rejoicing by the African American prisoners. Some had wildly optimistic notions that the gates of America’s bloated prisons were about to be thrown open to those of the president-elect’s pigmentation. Most, though less sanguine, did expect genuine reforms and Obama in his campaign had frequently justified such hopes.

He didn’t live up to those expectations. The disparity between sentences for use of crack cocaine (which is generally how African Americans take cocaine), and powdered cocaine (favored by whites), had been 100 to 1, a direct comparative repression of the African Americans.

The Obama administration eventually reduced the ratio to 18 to 1, still reprehensible discrimination.

I personally came to believe that the best policy was to legalize all but the deadliest drugs and require treatment for hard drug addicts, but if the existing policy is to be continued, it shouldn’t be on this uneven basis.

Particularly irritating were posturing African American members of Congress Danny Davis, Maxine Waters, and Sheila Jackson Lee. They all had large numbers of offenders and their families in their districts and were continually posturing as bountiful reformers helping those who had fallen afoul of the drug enforcement system.

I corresponded with them from prison but through my office, under my letterhead as a member of the British House of Lords, one legislator to another, questioning them about the initiatives they had undertaken for incarcerated people.

They are all frauds, illustrative of the cynicism of the Democratic political machine that has taken the black vote for granted since Lyndon Johnson’s Voting and Civil Rights Acts of the mid-’60s. African Americans were correct to reward the Democratic Party then, but they don’t owe that party anything now.

There are legitimate African American grievances against much of the police apparatus; the answer is better police, not fewer and demotivated police. The real rot is the corruption of the Democratic urban political machines, and the omnipotence of prosecutors who win about 99 percent of their cases because of the much-abused plea bargain system in which false inculpatory evidence is routinely extorted or suborned.

Better government would produce better police, as Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg did in New York, and better police are good for everyone, relatively defenseless African Americans most of all.

Conrad Black has been one of Canada’s most prominent financiers for 40 years, and was one of the leading newspaper publishers in the world. He is the author of authoritative biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and, most recently “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.