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Katie Mulvaney
By Katie Mulvaney December 7, 2014

Brown U. student leader: More African-American men in prison system now than were enslaved in 1850

A Brown University student leader offered a provocative historical comparison at the beginning of a Nov. 18, 2014, forum on the efficacy of taxing and regulating marijuana in Rhode Island.

"There are more African-American men in prison, jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850," said Diego Arene-Morley, president of Brown University Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

Arene-Morley made the statement to highlight that African-American and Hispanic men are arrested at disproportionate rates under the current drug laws.

We wondered whether Arene-Morley got his numbers right, so we asked him what he based his statement on. 

We also reached out to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics and the national nonprofit advocacy group, The Sentencing Project, for current figures. And we contacted the U.S. Census Bureau and the Rhode Island Historical Society for data about slavery in 1850.

The Census of 1850 showed that 872,924 male African-American slaves over age 15 lived in the United States at that time. (The same Census found that there were a total of 3.2 million African-American slaves of all ages, at a time when the total U.S. population, including slaves and "free coloreds," was 23.2 million.)

How does that compare with the number of African-American men now under some sort of judicial system supervision?

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 526,000 African-American men serving time in state or federal correctional facilities in 2013. (That’s 37 percent of the overall 1.5 million imprisoned men.)

That represented almost 3 percent of the overall black male population in the United States, compared with .5 percent of white males, according to the bureau.

There were 877,000 African-American men on probation in 2013, according to the bureau. And there were 280,000 African-American male parolees.

(Probation is part of a criminal sentence that allows an offender to remain under supervision in the community instead of jail. Parole is the supervised release of an inmate from jail before his or her official release date.)

In total, there were about 1.68 million African-American men under state and federal criminal justice supervision in 2013, 807,076 more than the number of African-American men who were enslaved in 1850.

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Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, provided a somewhat higher estimate for the number of African-American men now imprisoned or on probation and parole.

His number, which includes those serving time in local jails, was about 1.88 million, more than 1 million above the 1850 figure.

For the Rhode Island perspective, we asked the state Department of Corrections for its numbers. As of Oct. 10, there were 932 African-American men sentenced or awaiting trial in Rhode Island out of 3,108 male inmates overall.

In addition, 4,285 African-American men were on probation; 87 on parole; and 4 are on lifetime supervision, according to spokeswoman Susan Lamkins.

That totals 5,308, or 11 percent of the 48,542 black or African-American men in Rhode Island 18 years or older, according to the Census estimates as of July 1, 2013.

When Arene-Morley got back to us, he referred us to the book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander and to an interview with Alexander featured on the Huffington Post website.

The Huffington Post piece attributes to Alexander a statement the more black men are behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850.

Our ruling

Arene-Morley said that "There are more African American men in prison, jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850."

Our research found that U.S. Bureau of Criminal Statistics put the number of African American men under state and federal criminal justice supervision in 2013 at about 1.68 million -- 807,076 above the number of African American men enslaved in 1850.

The Sentencing Project, too, puts that number at 1.88 million with local jails factored in.

Given that evidence, we rate Arene-Morley’s claim True.

(If you have a claim you’d like PolitiFact Rhode Island to check, email us at [email protected]. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)

Our Sources

The Providence Journal, "At Brown University forum, proponents discuss legalizing marijuana in R.I.," Nov. 18, 2014, accessed Dec. 5, 2014, video of community forum "Regulating Marijuana in Rhode Island: A Public Health and Safety Approach" posted Nov. 19, 2014

Interview and e-mails, Kara McCarthy, public affairs specialist, U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, Dec. 1-3, 2014

Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Prisoners 2013," Sept. 16, 2014, accessed Dec. 3, 2014

U.S. Department of Justice, Probation and Parole in the U.S. 2013," October 2014, accessed Dec. 3, 2014

Interviews, Marc Mauer, Dec. 2-3, 2014, executive director of The Sentencing Project

Interview and e-mails, Dec. 1, Elyssa Tardif, Ph.D., Director, Newell D. Goff Center for Education and Public Programs at the Rhode Island Historical Society

Interview and e-mails, Dec. 1-2, 2014, U.S. Census Bureau

U.S. Census Bureau statistics, "Census of Population and Housing," accessed Dec. 2, 2014

U.S. Census Bureau statistics, "Population Estimates,"  July 1, 2013, accessed Dec. 5, 2014

Interview and e-mails, Susan  Lamkins, programming services officer/chief of information and public relations for the Rhode Island Corrections Department, Dec.1-3, 2014

"The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," by Michelle Alexander

Huffington Post, "Michelle Alexander: More Black Men are in Prison Today Than were Enslaved in 1850," Oct. 13, 2011, accessed Dec.1, 2014

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Brown U. student leader: More African-American men in prison system now than were enslaved in 1850

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