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Averting the Criminalization of Communities
By Thomasina W. James,
April 14, 2007

The socio-political and socio-economic impact of the prison industry is a topic of concern to communities across the nation. The adverse affects of the prison industry within racial/ethnic minority groups is glaringly apparent. They are the product of the criminal culture that exists in every prison around the globe.

I am an African-American woman from a diverse cultural background. I am currently serving a prison sentence at Saint Gabriel State Prison in Louisiana, for a "white collar" crime of sorts. Prior to my imprisonment I was a tax-paying, law-abiding citizen. As such, I have been placed in a unique position to view the prison from the inside.

Since I have been imprisoned I have seen scores of women, young and old, from various racial/ethnic groups, some of whose lives have been saved by the prison industry, and others who have been exploited by the prison industry. For many communities, this polemic is the core of the conflict. The women I am referring to are inmates as well as employees. You cannot consider one group without considering the other.

In economically depressed communities, the prisons provide much needed economic stimulus to the local economy (i.e. jobs, business contracts, etc.). In struggling communities, if a viable economic industry is not aggressively sought out and established, the vultures will gather and exploit the weaknesses of that community--socially and economically.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, some of the communities adversely affected by hurricane Katrina are prime examples. Prior to hurricane Katrina, some of the communities in the Greater New Orleans area were high crime areas, with high crime rates among black, white, Hispanic, and other populations. They were/are economically depressed communities that have turned to crime-related industries as a resource. The reasons for making such a
choice are infinite and subjective. The result of making that choice is inevitable. Communities choose to criminalize themselves, whether they are aware of the choice or not.

The vultures gathered and took advantage of the moral weakness that exists in those communities. In certain communities in the Greater New Orleans area, a person cannot get a job, rent an apartment, or buy certain property without being subject to a background check that includes a history of one's arrest record (not convictions) from the local sheriff's department. In most states, a person's arrest record is not admissible in a court of law. Yet, the arrest records of applicants is being used in poor communities. The vultures gather.

The solution I see to counteract these adverse affects is aggressive community action to form alternatives which include the building and construction of community centers, schools, and support for for-profit business interests and non-profit social enterprises that can stand alongside of the prison industry, and sometimes replace it. Aggressive community action for positive change is required--as it has always been.

Prisons are penal institutions whose primary objective is to penalize inmates for the crimes they have committed, and to provide rehabilitative mechanisms to avert recidivism. It is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect the prison industry to serve as a guiding force for social reform. Many prisoners create an environment that teaches and promotes criminal behavior, and in many instances the prison employees are also not immune to the temptation of "easy money." This circumstance holds true in every socio-economic class.

Therefore, as a nation, we must move toward a trend of outside community groups serving as liaisons and working actively with the prison industry to provide alternative sentencing options to district court judges, parole officers, etc.

And we should provide ancillary services to the local inmate populations. It is the responsibility of the local communities to take aggressive action to offset economic depression and positively mobilize themselves to avert their own criminalization. How do you criminalize a nation? Cut off its economic resources, sit back, and watch what happens.

Respectfully Submitted,

Thomasina W. James #485603
St. Gabriel State Prison
PO Box 26
St. Gabriel LA 70776

Thomasina James would appreciate receiving your comments, in letters written to the above address.

The following link offers tips for writing to prisoners:


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