Those Darn Minority Prisoners

I just got this interesting email from the editorial page editor of the Pocono Record:

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle of

Hi Daryl,

Just wanted to pass along a criticism from a very, very angry white male reader.

On Sunday, Aug. 2 I ran an editorial on prison reform noting the U.S. claim to fame-high prison population and advocating that we look more closely at models where electronic monitoring, parole etc. are used.

This afternoon I came back from lunch to find a real lunatic-fringe, more than 5-minute-long diatribe on my voice mail. The guy ran out of time, so he called back and left another few minutes of vituperation.

To accompany the corrections-reform edit, I had used your March 5, 2008 cartoon of the guys in striped jail suits jumping out of the bursting can. I also ran, small, in the editorial, Adam Zyglis’ cartoon of the same date dealing with the same topic.

This caller was outraged because all the prisoners he could see in the cartoons were white. He took off on that big-time.

Adding fuel to the fire was a story we ran on page 1 that day featuring an interview of a local white woman whose son, a Marine, had been killed along with his black wife, while stationed in California. Four black guys, fellow Marines, have been charged. The guy took off on that, too, saying that if it had been four white guys it would be all over the news (It WAS all over the news, but apparently he missed that page-one point somehow · .)

Anyway I just wanted to pass along this guy’s seething, roiling criticism of the liberal media portraying criminals as white and victims as minorities.

So next time you depict jail birds, if you want to make this guy happy make sure they’re all black, okay?


Paula Heeschen
Editorial page editor
Pocono Record
Stroudsburg, PA

Cartoon by Adam Zyglis of the Buffalo News.

By Daryl Cagle

Daryl Cagle is the founder and owner of Cagle Cartoons, Inc. He is one of the most widely published editorial cartoonists and is also the editor of The Cagle Post.

37 replies on “Those Darn Minority Prisoners”

Hi Daryl!
It's a situation where you just can't win with a lot of people. I'll bet the ranch if you put a whole lot of "black and Latino" faces on your cons, Reverend Al and his band of bozos would be all ove ryou like a cheap suit.
But I still get the point of your cartoon anyway. I'ts a damn waste of humanity that we throw so many of our own people in the can

Yeah. You got criticized. There are some folks out there who'd complain about a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Don't worry about it. We do have lots of people in prison and in jail. Easy way to solve it is to further rationalize our system of penalties, and maybe to narrow the range of behavior that is subject to criticism. Hmmm. Too bad there really isn't any 'easy way' to tackle any difficult subjects.

Maybe if we didn't permit and encourage illegal immigration we would have fewer drug users, child abusers, murders, thieves, rapists, drug dealers, and assorted criminals. How many of these crooks and prisoners are first or second generation illegals? Why do you think the other countries don't want them and, through tactic approval and direct policy encourage their bottom classes to come here. The best legal system a criminal can steal is ours. Export them, run a prison on foreign ground or be prepared for millions more jail cells on our soil. And, to make a point, the tax base shrinks for every person in jail. One does not have to be xenophobic to see that illegal immigration adds to our woes from school dropouts to career criminals.

No matter what kind of prisoners are depicted in a cartoon about crime or prisons, some will holler racial bias.

We have way too many people in prisons and jails, and it's busting budgets all over the U.S. But what's REALLY scary is how few on the inside actually belong outside, and how many more on the outside truly belong inside.

In Wisconsin, we agonize over imprisoning twice as many as Minnesota does, and over the high ratio of black prisoners, but it's not like we are locking up a lot of undeserving. We've tried every alternative to incarceration imaginable, including ankle bracelets, halfway houses, or even just ignoring some crimes, but the criminals just don't cooperate.

We're not prison-happy or out to get minorities. We just have too ***** many people committing serious crimes.

Since we have a fairly open/free society, why are we setting all-time records for incarceration? We have been a church-going society since the 1860's, so more of that would not seem to be the answer.

Somewheres around half the jail population has to do with "illegal" drugs. There was no such thing as illegal drugs for much of the history of the United States. Our beloved Edgar Allen Poe was a addict, he just bought his stuff at the local pharmacy. The medical profession and the teetotalers seem to be responsible for banning mind altering substances. How about we just permit Americans to not drink or shoot up if they don't want to? That would not only solve the prison problem, but probably make a lot of people happier, less confrontational.

I'm gonna go way out on a limb here, but maybe, just maybe, if we legalized FREEDOM and got rid of all the stupid, "we-don't-like-YOUR-idea-of-freedom" laws, and only jailed violent criminals and those who steal, commit fraud, cheat and otherwise badly use their fellows under guise of lenient laws for white-collar assholes, we'd have a smaller, more manageable prison population. And a better place to live, at the same time.

In other words, dismantle the whole Law-Enforcement/Court/Prison INDUSTRY and return to having American Justice.

Donna Barstow, please share with us the URL source for the statistics you quote! Although minorities are disproportionally represented in the prison population I'm afraid to say the total number of non-minority prisoners is still greater than that of the minority total. Don't fret though, given the changing US demographics and our not quite blind justice system, the future will likely soon reflect her longed for reality…

My immediate visceral reaction to the Daryl's cartoon was precisely the ranters reaction. Not quite so long and strong, but certainly immediate. I think it has become programmed. Pavlovian? I will continue to fight it, but this whole visual bias we have doesn't bode well in this dimension of social behavior. There is just too much reinforcement cross media to resist the initial reactions. Fortunately that portion of the brain that operates to socialize us by dampening our primal urges still functions, see studies on bullying and cranial activity.

As for the thesis we waste too much of humanity by imprisoning them, it wouldn't hurt to remember that people often make bad choices, choices always have consequences, they know that and elect to do what they do anyway. What prevents much of the rest of us from acting out our bad behavior tendencies? Consequences. Oh sure, some will do the right thing because they go about doing right things or things rightly, but most require a modicum of fear of being some Deliveranced Ned Beatty for a sex starved gorilla of a cell mate. Anyway, whenever I feel wave of sympathy for inmates beginning, I think of the victims of those poor unfortunates and it goes away. Here's hoping they don't place a rapist next door to you wearing only an ankle bracelet.

Yes, let us to put in prison only the truly dangerous. I don't care if you want to drink, inject, or smoke, as long as I can sell it via an appropriate agency, and create jobs and tax revenue with it, instead of a black hole of expenses… Why should some shnook from South America get rich off our drug war?

Menawhile, as for the Bernie Madoffs, and such, well, jail is much too good for them. Have they not cost society enough?

Bring back slavery for such crimes. Say, you have over 1,000 "clients" and they lose more than, oh $3000 each due to your imbezzling, or you steal more than a total of say, oh, $6,000.000. Then you and your family lose everything, and you get sold to some little old lady in Mucktown.

The public gets a partial refund of the cost of investigating and trying you, and you and your spouse and kids get to pull up weeds for Miss Daisy the rest of your life…. Oh, how the mighty would be more careful!

As it is now, they just get to keep their ill-stolen-gains, and live our their lives in a white collar country club jail, with steaks on weekends, and TV – all at our expense. Moreover, they get better medical care, and free prescription drugs, and are GUARDED from all the psychopaths that appear to be lose out there…

Meanwhile, Joes like you and me get to pay for this. That, is why the government gets about 35% or your pay cheque – before you do.

I would like to suggest faceless drawings… to signify how well do we really know our incarceration system problems.

Quite apart from the issue of how the races are depicted in the prison population, does anyone find it even slightly odd that the "pre-prison" population, i.e., active criminals, are so often depicted in film and on television as cooperative participants in bi-racial enterprises? (Except for Asian criminals, of course, who are usually members of racially segregated psychotic global syndicates based in Hong Kong.) Writers apparently see black and white criminals as far more racially inclusive than the rest of of society.

How can you justify depicting the criminals as wearing black-and-white striped outfits, when statistics have shown that bright orange jumpsuits and the like are far more prevalent? And why do they all have big feet and bulging eyes? There are plenty of inmates with much smaller features. And I've never seen a giant trashcan like that before… frankly, I'm appalled at the lack of verisimilitude…

Good one! Just so we don't forget.

I've taught (or tried to teach) 35 kids at a time from East Oakland, and I can tell you the class size should be more like 6. There were few if any social services provided to that population sector.

The statistics in the '80's were the following: If you were young, male and black, you had a 1 in 2 chance of even making it alive to your 21st birthday. To say nothing of injury or jail.

These people need love and care, although if they weren't completely cynical when they went into jail, they'll be completely hostile when they get out. About the only education they get in jail is to learn hostile attitudes and divide off into gangs complete with tattoos. There is not enough control in jails to prevent this, so the jail system sucks as well. Great.

As to the cartoon style, I agree with you. Those features should have been enough to cue the viewer. Thanks for the reminder when we are so caught up in our economic troubles. This references a lot of people!

I think the issue is more complex than race alone, and that the main factor is economics. The common link of those in US prisons is class, not race. That's not because poor=criminal, but because the quality of legal representation you get is determined by what you can pay for it. When convicted, an offense that brings years in prison for a poor person would bring (maybe) a short time in prison and a fine for a rich person.

So why are prison populations disproportionately non-white? Roughly speaking, minorities as a whole have lower incomes. Say there was a burglary, and the police rushed to the scene. They see two men, possible suspects. One is white, in a business suit, carrying a large briefcase. The other is black, dressed casually in tee shirt and jeans, carrying nothing. Logically, the police would make a bee-line for that briefcase, which could easily be holding a large amount of money. In reality, they'll grab the guy who is dressed casually. This applies to police who are, themselves, minorities as well. Reverse the races, with the businessman being black, and the casually-dressed man being white, and they'll still go after the guy in the tee-shirt, not the suit. Why? Because our culture teaches us that wealthy people are good, and don't commit crimes. (And arresting the well-to-do is always very problematic and time-consuming for police and the courts.)

B Burnett: I'm a Wisconsinite, too, and NO, we do not agonize about our prison population beyond "How and where can we build more prisons." Think a minute: When you rip out the social safety net, and then the economy tanks and there aren't enough jobs for those who desperately need them, of course crime increases. (And WI has pretty much been a leader among states in nurturing a cultural hate toward our poor, thanks to the former governor, which is a complicated but important factor)

That said, consider the explosive growth of profitable prison industries in this state since 1980. Not only is building and "manning" prisons a highly profitable business, but we encourage businesses to subcontract work through (super cheap) prison labor. There's simply a whole loot of money to be made by increasing the prison population. The only "agony" is over how to ensure there is enough cheap labor to meet demand. To ensure this, we take a range of actions, like increasing prison sentences, reducing use (at least, for the poor) of prison alternatives, weakening legal options and protections for the poor, etc.

I would like to suggest faceless drawings… to signify how well do we really know our incarceration system problems.

A note about gender: For the same offenses, women get far longer sentences, in prisons that often have the worst conditions, than men. This is our dirty little cultural secret, and we rarely talk about it.

No matter what the skin color or ethnicity, we have a problem with prisons. We can't afford to imprison all these people. I work for a prison and I know how much it costs society to keep one person incarcerated. It is a huge drain on public coffers. We need to look at this issue again. Mandatory sentencing laws are costing us too much. Give the judge more discretion.

California has the largest population of prison inmates in the country. A walk through our prisons would show a large number of white prisoners who belong to the Aryan Brotherhood who vastly outnumber the black inmates. Next, hispanics outnumber blacks, too. Thus, being black behind bars can be injurous to your health since they make up the largest portion of those killed behind bars by the white/hispanic gangs.

Statiscally, a lot of blacks are behind bars. However, while many should be there a lot of others are there due to faulty "eyewitness" statements or evidence that is suspect. Remember, Professor Gates was taken to jail for being in his own house! Imagine if he were someone else of color. In addition, a lot of blacks are shot by police because they "pointed a gun" at an officer. Either the guys can't afford bullets, don't know how to pull the trigger, or want to go out SBC (suicide by cop). If they live, they get locked up, too!

Let's get a grip and stop nitpicking over race perceptions in cartoons. It''s the idea we're supposed to get and not the skin color. Besides, don't you guys have something better to pursue like accusing Barack of not being born in the US? Everyone knows that Hawaii is not attached to this continent, so they must be onto something. Whoops! Alaska isn't a part of the US either. Maybe THAT's why Sarah Palin resigned.

I find Donna Barstow's comments (especially #3) to be interesting and typical of the society we live in today. First and foremost let me say crime is crime and it is all wrong. It doesn't matter about the ethnic group of the perpetrator. To the best of my knowledge, in every country on the planet there are criminals and jails. There has not been an ethnic group of people who have managed to live crime free in a society in the history of humanity. To suggest that somehow since there are more minorities incarcerated in America means they are intrinsically 'bad' people is ridiculous. One would have to erroneously assume the current criminal justice system to be largely accurate. There are problems with our justice system. The few programs that were getting positive, tangible results in the areas of rehabilitation and prevention have been scrapped b/c of not being politically correct. As some others have so truthfully stated here, we as a society are content to point fingers and quote statistics. We are not interested in resolving our problems. Actions speak louder than words. We can also search google to see numerous studies on racial disparity in the criminal justice system as a whole but especially in sentencing. BTW, I get the idea of the cartoons. Yes, prisons are overcrowded. Yes, something needs to be done. Yes, I can clearly see a wide representation of ethnic groups in both cartoon drawings.

I would agree that if you get caught up on race your actually missing the intended message. That said, in Daryl's toon I can spot a few that are possible minorities but they are outweighed by what appears to be white inmates. In Adam's I see a greater diversity but if that wasn't the main point I can see why Daryl didn't dwell on the ethnicity of each character. I read Donna's comment as well and I would hope as she is intrigued by the prison system she is equally intrigued by the many causes of it. In any country poverty is one of the major factors in crime rate. Looking at the U.S. ethnic poverty statics and its similarities to the prison statistics explains a lot. Seeking results without exploring the cause really don't solve the problems we have in america. Actually quite a lot of that is being done already. Not saying that any of you haven't just making a point that isn't addressed in these comments.

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