First published on Truthout on December 4, 2012. It’s a hell of a thing to go through life with a felony record in the United States. The consequences are different depending on who and/or what you are, however.
Take a 20-something black American who has just finished serving three years in a state correctional facility after pleading guilty to a minor drug offense – possessing a modest amount of marijuana and/or cocaine. He was born into a deeply disadvantaged single-parent family stuck in a jobless ghetto where drugs, gangs, guns and crime were ubiquitous, where economic opportunity was absent, and where schools were dilapidated, underfunded, unsafe and obsessed with standardized tests scores.
He grew up in what researchers call “deep poverty,” at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level (more than 1 million live in that condition). Food pantries, food stamps, public family cash assistance and the underground economy kept him alive in his youth.
His childhood unfolded against a backdrop of vacant lots, broken glass, boarded-up homes, gunfire, used hypodermic needles and constant police harassment. His teachers expected him to end up in prison from the early grades on. Incarceration was a normal experience for young men in his neighborhood. A large number of the folks he went to (and dropped out of) school with have already been killed or maimed in street violence.
His arms are marked with gang tattoos a prison release counselor told him to get removed – a painful process – if he wants to find a job on the outside. He also has a four-inch gash over his left eye, courtesy of an abusive cellmate.
He’s back on the streets after three years on the wrong side of one of the many hundreds of prisons that dot the rural landscape of the world’s leading mass incarceration nation. (The supposed land of liberty, the United States is home to more than 2 million prisoners, nearly half of them black. The number of black Americans currently under criminal supervision in the United States is greater than the total number of slaves in the country on the eve of the Civil War). Now he is one of the one in three black adult males marked with the lifelong stigma of a felony record.
As if he wasn’t already sufficiently disadvantaged by the savage racial and socioeconomic disparities that scarred his life from birth (from conception, in all truth) and by the prison experience itself, he now wears the badge of what law professor Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow” in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010). When he agreed to plead guilty to a felony, he was “told little or nothing about the parallel universe [he was] about to enter, one that promises a form of punishment that is often more difficult to bear than prison time: a lifetime of shame, contempt, scorn, and exclusion. In this world,” Alexander notes, “discrimination is perfectly legal” – and technically “colorblind.”
Along with his race, dismal education, and an awkward three-year gap in his school and work history, his felony record would be a nearly fatal hurdle to decent employment. Nobody told him about that. Or that he would lose his rights to sit on a jury and (in many states) to vote – two of the most basic rights in a democratic nation. Or that he would become ineligible for numerous federally funded health and welfare benefits, including food stamps, public housing and educational assistance. Or that he would no longer qualify for numerous employment and professional licenses (a law degree, for example) or be able to obtain a federal security clearance or be permitted to enlist in the military and that he might have his drivers’ license automatically suspended. Or that he would be shackled upon release with various debts (a “new debtors’ prison”) resulting from fines and other payments he would be required to make to probation departments, child support officers, parole officers, fees to work-release authorities and public defenders among other “post-conviction fees,” according to Alexander.
Given their common debt burden and the remarkable difficulty “ex-offenders” have getting work and public benefits in a society that requires people to exchange money or food stamps for basic necessities, it is unsurprising that released prisoners commonly return to the black market drug economy that made them targets for arrest and imprisonment. It’s a vicious circle whereby the criminal (in)justice system uses “the war on drugs” to turn millions of black and Latino and poor white Americans into a permanent criminal underclass that cycles in and out of jail, court, prison, parole, probation, the nation’s poorest and most opportunity-starved communities and the most marginal sections of the labor market. This mostly nonwhite criminal caste is the critical human raw material for an industry that provides jobs for predominantly white rural workers who no longer find employment in agriculture or industry: racially disparate mass incarceration. Along the way, the nation’s colossal human warehousing and branding system serves the predominantly white economic elite by further cheapening the price of black and lower-class labor and suppressing the official unemployment rate, which would be much higher if it included prisoners.
It isn’t just about the specific forms of discrimination and the terrible material consequences of the barriers felons face. “Many ex-offenders,” Alexander notes: “will tell you that . . . the worst of it . . . is the shame and stigma that follows you for the rest of your life. . . . It is not just the job denial but the look that flashes across the face of a potential employer when ne notices that ‘the box’ has been checked – the way he suddenly refuses to look you in the eye. It is not merely the denial of the housing application but the shame of being a grown man who has to beg his grandmother for a place to sleep at night. It is not simply the denial of the right to vote but the shame one feels when a coworker innocently asks, ‘Who are you going to vote for on Tuesday?’ ”
A felony record is a social and political death sentence for many.
Things are different for the artificial person called BP PLC – the giant England-based petroleum corporation British Petroleum (BP). Two weeks ago, BP agreed to become a convicted felon by accepting a deal with the US Justice Department. It will plead guilty to 11 felony counts of “seaman’s manslaughter” and one felony count of obstructing Congress related to the offshore Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and riveted the world by causing an epic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in early 2010. In what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls “the largest environmental disaster in history,” the spill lasted for months and was captured on live underwater camera even as BP officials lied about the volume of toxic oil (60,000 barrels) it spewed each day into the ocean.
In addition, the company has agreed to pay a record US fine of $4.5 billion and faces up to $31 billion in additional pollution penalties under the Clear War Act and the Oil Pollution Act. (It had already paid out $36 billion related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.) The Justice Department is charging BP engineers Don Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, 63, with manslaughter in the Deepwater incident. Vidrine and Kaluza face the possibility of going to prison for a decade or more. And last week, the Obama administration ordered a temporary stop to new federal contracts with BP, citing the company’s “lack of business integrity.” The action by the EPA bans BP and its affiliates from new government contracts for an indefinite period. At the same time, the administration has disqualified BP from winning new leases to drill for oil or gas on taxpayer-owned land until the suspension is lifted.
But the spectacularly wealthy corporation BP has the resources to make the payments demanded, some of which it will meet by selling off a few refineries and other assets. No top executives at the artificial felon BP will be spending any time in a prison or a jail or on parole or probation. With the Vidrine and Kaluza indictment, BP is permitted to offer up two of its lesser professional employees as scapegoats. The charges against them are cynical, predicated on the ridiculous notion that two immediate supervisors, without any influence over BP’s destructive practices and culture, can be held accountable for a complex and many-sided disaster. The two retirement-age professionals are being sacrificed to protect the real criminals in the corporate suites. As The New York Times reported the day after the BP settlement was announced: “Brian Gilvary, BP’s chief financial officer, said in a conference call with analysts that the [BP] board weighed the settlement struck with the government against the prospect of a much wider criminal indictment that would have involved more people in the company. ‘A criminal indictment would have been a huge distraction,’ he said.” Gilvary might have added the prospect of a much wider criminal indictment “might have involved people higher up in the company.”
The EPA ban on new contracts and leases is strictly temporary, unlike the numerous lifetime barriers experienced by many millions of poor, disproportionately black and Latino flesh-and-blood American felons. It does not impact existing BP contracts with the federal government, which include “hundreds of leases it has signed to drill for oil or gas in the United States and agreements worth billions of dollars to supply the government with fuel.” It will remain in effect only “until the company can provide sufficient evidence to EPA demonstrating that it meets federal business standards,” the environmental agency said. BP is already working with the EPA to prove it is meeting standards and said that this temporary suspension should be lifted “soon.”
CNN Money reported that BP shares fell early in the day the suspension was announced but “recouped most of their losses by noon.” Nobody in the EPA or the Justice Department or elsewhere in the oil-friendly Obama administration is talking about permanent debarment – the disqualification of the mendacious, man-slaughtering multinational from ever again receiving federal contracts and leases. Looking forward to the increased shareholder price, improved reputation, and enhanced investor stability it expects to result from a resolution of the claims against it, BP remains at liberty to rake in untold billions of dollars in super-profits while working to push humanity’s doomsday clock ever and more rapidly closer to midnight as more and more surplus carbon emissions collect in the atmosphere and as more American water supplies are exhausted and poisoned by the hydraulic fracturing practices BP and other leading oil corporations exploit.
A report in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) the day after BP agreed to wear the felony mark bore an interesting headline: “Accident Fails to Dent British Firm’s Ambitions in US.” Forget for a moment the newspaper’s curious choice of the word “accident” over “crime.” How about “Admission to Eleven Counts of Felony Manslaughter Fails to Dent British Firm’s Ambitions in US”? to appreciate the remarkable degree to which BP expects to survive its conviction with profits and US production capacities intact. According to the WSJ:
“BP PLC’s operations in the US, which once seemed in jeopardy because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, have instead taken on greater importance at the London-based oil giant. . . . The company employs about 23,000 people, 30 percent of its workforce – in the US, which is home to 40 percent of its shareholders. It also produces 20 percent of its oil and gas in the country. . . . BP remains the largest oil producer in the US Gulf of Mexico and runs a huge oil field in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. It maintains strategically important refineries in Washington, Ohio and Indiana. And the company is exploring for oil and gas in emerging shale formations located in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Ohio. . . . Its chief executive, Bob Dudley, is an American, who in a speech at Harvard University on Tuesday, said BP ‘remains committed to the US and our role in its energy industry.’ . . . Executives have made clear BP is committed to drilling in the US in the long term . . . [saying it will] invest $4 billion in Gulf operations in 2012 and at least that amount every year over the next decade.”
While millions of living, felony-marked Americans can never vote in another election even after they serve their time for a minor felony drug offense, the felony-marked artificial person called BP will remain free under Citizen United-era US campaign finance law to pour unlimited resources from its corporate treasury into the money-soaked US elections system. Along with the billions of dollars BP and other global corporate fossil fuel giants like Exxon-Mobil and Chevron pour into lobbying, public relations and propaganda, its political investments will continue the psychopathic work of discrediting the urgent and overwhelming scientific consensus on the ever-deepening existential threat posed by anthropogenic global warming and preventing serious public action to save the species from the specter of climate change. It will continue along with its corporate brethren and their criminal front the American Petroleum Institute to bet against the fading prospects for a decent future, destroying a livable Earth with recklessly excessive carbon emissions that are warming the planet beyond the “tipping point” of sustainable habitation.
Thanks to that deadly influence, the WSJ can report that “the oil industry rebounded quickly from the [Deepwater Horizon] accident in spite of a six-month deepwater drilling moratorium and a spate of new regulations. Thirty months after the spill, offshore gas and oil operations in the Gulf have all but returned to their pre-accident levels. The latest rig count shows 47 offshore rigs in the gulf, just shy of the level right before the accident.” Remarkably enough, one of those rigs (the Black Elk platform, 25 miles southeast of Grand Isle, Louisiana,) blew up on the day after the announcement of BP’s settlement with the Justice Department.
Also thanks to the extraordinary influence of BP and other giant oil companies, climate change was almost completely missing from the 2012 election. In their second televised debate, the two presidential contenders went back and forth trying to outdo each other in touting their commitment to making America “energy independent” through fracking, expanded domestic and offshore drilling, and accelerated coal extraction. Neither of them seemed to care much about what the world is going to look like after a few more decades of such practices. It was futile to hope that Hurricane Sandy – its remarkable fury driven by greenhouse emission-warmed ocean waters – would do much to penetrate the petro-corporate, plutocracy-imposed silence. The record-setting heat, droughts, and forest and grass fires of 2012 didn’t do it, so how was yet another example of Nature’s revenge going to break through the eco-cidal consensus with less than a week to go?
Such is the dark, slimy nature of what passes for justice in the United States, where money talks and eco-cide walks. It’s a nation where droves of young black males are multiply disenfranchised for life for dealing modest amounts of weed while giant corporations who fill the planet with lethal carbon emissions and who dedicate huge resources to undermining public regulation of mass-murderous greenhouse gases remain free to pursue lucrative federal contracts and purchase decisive political influence even after they commit spectacular and egregious crimes against human beings and the Earth we all share.
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