There were many incisive questions from the overflow audience in the dining hall of the former Alcatraz U.S. Penitentiary as we joined filmmaker Kevin Epps for the premiere of Black Rock, a treatment of the untold lives of African-Americans on the prison island.
With Kevin and I on the panel were Jakada Imani, director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. I encouraged the thoroughly enthralled viewers to use Alcatraz as a metaphor for the current prison-industrial complex.
Two of the inmates featured in the documentary, Robert Lipscomb and William Martin, spent close to 50 years in prison for a total of $250 worth of criminal acts. Lipscomb’s real crime was learning to analyze the legal codes and to become a fierce advocate for the end of segregation at the prison.
Martin should have been applauded for breaking down those racial barriers, but instead was driven into a mental hospital.
The most notable of the black inmates, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, faced a far more onerous prison stint than the celebrated “Public Enemy Number One” who is the source of much of the allure of the prison island.
The lesson I hoped that they brought away is that the “scientific racism” theories of the late 19th century were at the heart of the Alcatraz correctional philosophy which became the national norm.
A dozen-fold increase in black incarceration forced the country to rely on international workers in the 1990s instead of building a fairer and more affluent society.
Instead, California still maintains segregation in its exorbitant and overcrowded prisons, which has the effect of creating segregation in its higher education system, that now spreads even down to the nursery school level, as I pointed out in my report Compelling State Interest: California After Proposition 209.
Kevin represents the untapped potential being ignored in inner cities. He and the Alcatraz inmates also show the irrepressible spirit which can not be quenched, even in the harshest circumstances.