It is an astounding fact, even given all we know about incarceration rates for Black men in America. But according to experts, U.S. prisons now hold more Black men than slavery ever did.

Speaking to the Pasadena branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ohio State law professor, Michelle Alexander explained the starkness of the situation facing African-American men and their communities.

“More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” said Alexander.

The topic is the focus of Alexander’s year-old bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The book, which received the 2011 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, presents the professor’s look at the U.S. prison system and the effect of the justice system’s policies on young Black men. As of 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Justice estimated there were over 846,000 Black men in prison, making up 40.2% of all inmates in the system at large.

In Pasadena, Alexander spoke to a crowd of over 200 people who had battled through rainstorms to see her speak. Her emphasis on this issue has struck a chord with those inside and outside of the African-American community, with many interested in public policy turning out to hear her thoughts on how the incarceration epidemic has reached this point.

Despite declining trends in crime rates, the number of Black men prison has continued to rise over the past 30 years. The contrast in the numbers is tied to the disparities in drug enforcement in poor communities- an allocation choice that often penalizes Black youth in inner city urban neighborhoods. Alexander said that while this cycle is the reason for 4 out of 5 Black youth get caught up in the system, it is also an economic issue as well.

“If we were to return prison populations to 1970 levels, before the War on Drugs began,” said. “More than a million people working in the system would see their jobs disappear.”

In the midst of the recession, it seems America’s prison system is benefitting from the inmate business with drug enforcement policies serving up Black men as a steady stream of income. But even with the current trends and policies, are we conceding that these conditions make it inevitable for Black men to end up behind bars?

One thing is certain; the best way to avoid getting trapped in the system is to stay out of it in the first place. Alexander says the discrimination face by former inmates is so stark that it often makes it close to impossible to navigate through society and rebuild their lives. Of Black men who are incarcerated, seventy percent return to prison within two years.

In a piece for The Huffington Post, Alexandra asked a poignant question:

“…what if Obama, who has admitted to violating our nation’s drug laws, had been treated like a common criminal — what if he hadn’t been insulated by growing up in Hawaii and attending a predominately white university — where would he be now?

It is an interesting question to consider given the numbers which make us wonder how many Black men with potential to be great, are spending their years in a physical and mental cage.

What do you think of the statistics on Black men in the prison system- is incarceration an economic bondage comparable to slavery?

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