Will Roberts, University of Richmond Class of 2021, Summer 2020
Note from the Author: This article is a work in progress. A final version will be published here in December. In the meantime, I encourage comments, feedback and quarrels. You can contact me at email@example.com.
Table of Contents:
Part III: Mass Incarceration and the Informant Institution
Note on attribution and privacy:
Regardless of jail policy, we believe that the artists themselves are the full and sole owners of their intellectual property as well as the recordings themselves. All references to specific tracks on this site are fully anonymized and excerpted, even when residents indicated on their consent and release forms that they could be named in the archive. They remain anonymized, and our examples restricted to very short excerpts, because incarcerated individuals do not have the freedom to truly give voluntary consent and because we do not own or have the right to freely distribute their compositions. All audio clips are restricted to short excerpts.
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Part III: Mass Incarceration and the Informant Institution
Mass incarceration refers to a labyrinth of state-sanctioned violence and social control that evolved from American slavery and Jim Crow laws. Michelle Alexander argues in “The New Jim Crow” that the true scope of mass incarceration accounts not only for the some 2.3 million Americans locked up in U.S. jails and prisons, but for the millions more who are subject to state-sanctioned violence and legalized discrimination outside of jail and prison walls, and who are labeled “criminal” in their reactions to such violence and subjugation. A city jail artist raps, “Manchester City where they labeling me,” referring to the Manchester, Richmond, courthouse on Hull Street, (Sky Don’t Be Mad, [3:30]). It’s the prison label, Alexander argues, not the prison time, that matters most: “As a criminal, you’re afforded scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”1 Released from jail or prison, juvenile detention or institutionalized rehabilitation, the criminal label marks people for further discrimination and further exclusion from society. One city jail artist raps, “Went from robbin’ to sellin’, can’t get a job I’m a felon,” (Life, [1:00]). On a different track, an artist raps, “If you like to fight, fight to get your rights back, Republicans’ll never win again because felons are all democrats” (I Miss You, [0:30]).
The interlocking systems of mass incarceration — schools, banks, real estate industry, criminal justice system — work foremost to exclude poor people of color from the ladder of social and economic mobility. City jail artists rap about this often: “They wanna see our vision faded, they wanna see us go back,” (Run It Back, [2:40]) or “Why you preying on my downfall?” (Downfall, [0:10]). James Baldwin wrote in 1972 that “The poor, the black, and the ignorant become steppingstones of careers; for the people who make up this remarkable club are judged by their number of arrests and convictions. These matter far more than justice, if justice can be said to matter at all.”2
Mass incarceration is often justified through the language of law and order as a means to prevent crime. But, as Alexander argues, sustaining a caste system is exactly what the interlocking of social, economic and judicial systems was designed to do. This is disproportionately and devastatingly evident in poor communities of color — in Richmond and across the United States — where the war on drugs is waged most forcefully and pervasively. In the city jail track “No Justice,” the artist raps, “There’s supposed to be a war on drugs, but in the midst of… there’s been a mix up, because the war’s on us” (No Justice [1:00]). As Law and Schenwar contend in Prison by Any Other Name, the war on drugs has created a “prison nation” in its conquest to lock so great a number of people behind literal walls, but also in its maintenance of “carceral citizens,” who live alongside free people but “cannot legally access that freedom for themselves.3
To borrow from a city jail artist, carceral citizens “belong to the state.” Probation, parole, house arrest, disenfranchisement, job insecurity, loss of welfare benefits and access to education are ways in which the criminal justice system interlocks with other systems to sustain the caste system and its carceral citizens. Even more, the highly surveilled and punitive atmospheres that saturate jails and prisons often extend into communities via “reform” efforts that allow convicted people to do time or “rehabilitation” on the outside. However, these reform efforts, deemed “alternatives” to jail and prison, create paths for the surveillance and punitiveness of jail to extend into communities.4 Other reform efforts, such as calls for “community policing” in efforts to “rebuild trust” with the community members, ignore the fact that police decide who constitutes the “community,” and, further, that police use of community members to surveil other members leads to the fracturing of community.5 In August 2016, Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham wrote in an op-ed in Style Weekly that “The members of the Police Department are thoroughly immersed in the community. Our officers know the people on their beats, members at all ranks take part in regular community walks…” Later, he writes, “The community helps us to fight crime, solve cases and recruit new officers. The Richmond Police Department is truly a reflection of the community. We are the community and the community is us. We are one.” However, in July 2020, some residents of Gilpin Court, a predominately Black and low-income neighborhood in Richmond with one of the highest crime rates in the city, described RPD’s touted community-based policing approach as hostile and disrespectful. One Gipin resident, Titus Williams, said, “If they see us standing outside or just chilling — we could be congregating with a couple of guys, politicking — and they’ll just pull up, hop out, tell us to stop what we’re doing. They just grab you by the arm, grab you by the shirt or something like that, push you up against the car and start checking you. It’s regular police brutality, you know what I mean? It’s your average police brutality.” Another Gilpin resident, Leander Vinson, said, “There’s no respect. Just because you hang out in the projects, that doesn’t mean that everybody is doing drugs, everybody is selling drugs. It’s the neighborhood that I like and the neighborhood that I was raised in.”6
In combination, these reform efforts sustain what journalists Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law call “communities as open-air-prisons.” Part of sustaining open-air prisons is to reward betrayal among the surveilled population, disrupting community and resistance. The following section explores an attribute of mass incarceration and drug enforcement that receives significant attention in Richmond city jail rap lyrics but is often overlooked: snitching.
“Snitching” refers to the act of exchanging with police or prosecutors information about others, often people in your community – neighbors, friends, family — in order to receive a reduced punishment for some crime. In this context, snitches are people who have been arrested and are seeking the benefits of cooperating with police. Benefits of “cooperation” range from receiving a reduced sentence or immunity for crimes you’ve committed, to not facing any consequences and, in fact, continuing to commit crimes for the sake of being an informant. 7 Snitching allows those who have been accused of a crime to avoid otherwise harsher sentencing. Some may even avoid punishment altogether and even be compensated as informants. Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws for low-level drug offenses are largely responsible for the increase in criminal informant use.8 The harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws were a pillar of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that compelled state legislatures to adopt tougher stances on drug enforcement. Further, harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws incentivize defendants to convict themselves through a plea deal, thus forfeiting their right to a trial by jury in exchange for a lesser sentence. The fear of facing a mandatory minimum at trial is almost always enough for a defendant to agree to a plea deal, even if they’re innocent. As one city jail artist raps, “The commonwealth threw me a plea, so I ain’t go to trial, I coulda took it to the door but it won’t worth my time” (Tell the Truth, [0:50]). Another artist raps, “I took that murder rap but I didn’t commit the crime,” (“Soldier1” [2:00]). The charges defendants face if they go to trial are often an exaggeration of what prosecutors could actually prove in court. This tactic, known as “loading up,” is used to force defendants to take a plea deal instead of going to trial.9 Prosecutors thus wield an enormous amount of power compared with judges. By consequence, more than 95 percent of felony cases end in a plea deal, for defendants are almost always incentivized to convict themselves.10 That so few cases are resolved by public trials and litigation severely undermines the public’s ability to understand how cases are actually resolved. This is because plea bargaining usually takes place off the record.11 By consequence, the rise of plea bargaining obscures the real mechanisms of the criminal justice system, especially questions of how police and prosecutors obtain information.
While mandatory minimum sentences intimidate defendants into convicting themselves through a plea agreement, they also create snitches. Defendants who hail from low-income and high-crime communities often take plea deals out of fear of snitches.12 According to the 2018 United States Sentencing Guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences “may be ‘waived’ and a lower sentence imposed… by reason of a defendant’s ‘substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense.’”13 Loyola Law School professor Alexandra Natapoff, in her book Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, examines police and prosecutors dependence and overuse of criminal informants. The unreliability of criminal informants, she notes, is well documented. A 2004 study by Northwestern University of Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions traced 45.9 percent of all documented wrongful convictions to false informant testimony.14 It’s not surprising that people would offer false testimony; the incentives to snitch — reduced sentences, immunity and sometimes payment — are compelling. Further, amultitude of judicial issues arise from police and prosecutors’ dependence on criminal informants, especially in drug enforcement. The informant institution is cloaked in secrecy, is subject to little public or judicial review and relies completely on the discretion of police and prosecutors, who are responsible for maintaining relationships with informants.Aside from judicial issues of secrecy, discretion and informant unreliability, the informant institution has subjected communities to an often-unrecognized form of surveillance, control and disruption. These communities are typically Black or Latinx, in urban places already plagued by social and economic insecurity, intrusive policing and closer proximity to carceral spaces and the workings of the criminal system. Police and prosecutors’ pervasive use of criminal informants in drug-enforcement arises from dangerous, colorblind assumptions about policing: that only guilty people should fear police informants, and that the state response to high-crime rates should be more police, thus more informants. As Natapoff illustrates in her chapter Snitching in the ‘Hood, both these assumptions ignore the collateral damage that widespread informant presence inflicts on poor communities of color by exacerbating existing inequalities in policing and eroding fragile social infrastructures.15 Such assumptions also ignore the vast historical differences between policing white communities and policing Black communities. In A Snitch in Time: An Historical Sketch of Black Informing During Slavery, Andrea Dennis, coauthor of Rap On Trial, writes that the Black American experience during slavery offers a rationale for contemporary arguments against snitching.
As she writes, “Since its earliest days, the United States’ approach to policing Blacks’ alleged criminality was often predicated on using Black citizens to target other Black citizens.” During slavery, slaveholders cultivated Black informants amongst their slaves in order to detect and prosecute slave misconduct. Black informants were also crucial to preventing slave rebellion and insurrection. By using informants, slaveholders sought to disrupt trust, community and resistance among Black slaves.
The prevalence of lyrics referencing snitching, betrayal and trust in city jail rap lyrics largely reflects the consequences police dependence on informants has on poor communities of color. Because the war on drugs is waged primarily in poor communities of color, informants and the communal consequences of the informant institution are concentrated in these communities. Natapoff explores multiple consequences of the concentration of snitches in marginalized communities: more crime, more violence, more police funding in areas where snitches come from, (which are always poor communities of color), more tension between police and community and more distrust between community residents.16 The last consequence, more distrust between community residents, is regularly discussed in city jail rap lyrics. Multiple artists express the fact that they simply cannot trust anyone, not even “day ones,” meaning people they’ve known since childhood or adolescence. One artist raps, “And I really don’t trust n*s, even day ones, I can’t fuck with you, no new friends, I’m like fuck n*s, fuck around, I got trust issues” (Criso, [3:10]). On another track, the artist raps, “I still can’t believe you told them people everything, Momma always told me that my heart gon get me killed, all this trust I gave n*s almost got me thirty years,” (Change On Me, [1:00]). On the track “Trapp Betrayel,” the artists raps, “Can never trust a bitch ‘cause my own bitch she made a statement,” meaning she snitched. By contrast, one artist raps, “Stay solid, never fold, I never been on paper work, I never told” (Life, [0:40]. The insistence on not being able to trust anyone reflects the overwhelming temptations and rewards for snitching. Tracks such as “Change on Me” and “Trapp Betrayel” both chronicle cases in which family and friends turned on each other in order to evade punishment. The artist on “Change on Me” raps, “Police came with them indictments, some n*s flipped, my own dog switched sides, I read the script.” On “Trapp Betrayel,” the artist raps, “My oldest brother straight betrayed me, that shit drove me crazy,” and later, “Same n*s you show love, catch a case, n*s change” (Trapp Betrayel, [0:40]) To “catch a case” means to be arrested.
Andrea Dennis and Erik Nielson write that realness in rap lyrics often has to do with being loyal to one’s community.17 Realness, as articulated by many city jail artists, means resisting police infiltration of communities by doing the jail or prison time instead of snitching in order to get a reduced sentence. One artist raps, “If I get locked up, I don’t speak no Englos, I keep my mouth shut, play the game how it go” (Life, [2:00]). Words like “fliping,” “switching,” “folding,” “budging” or “turning state” refer to giving up information after being arrested and are ubiquitous in city jail rap lyrics.
“Thought real n*s don’t tell shit but I realized you a real rat, it’s fucked up how you played yours, that’s some shit idda never did, I laid down, did a hundred years, ‘fore I ever told, I’d never switch” (Change On Me, [1:30]). Being willing to do time instead of snitching is evidence of one’s realness and is often figured as a fidelity to a particular community. On the track “Soldier1,” the artist raps, “Did time behind bars, I ain’t a rat, From the North, Highland Park,” (Soldier1, [1:00]) Here, the artists’ realness is verified by doing time, but also the place he’s from, Highland Park. In the lyric, “I swear my n*s never fold, I’m from my area,” (My Area [0:50]), the artist also makes a connection between not snitching and the place he’s from. This is also demonstrated in lyrics such as “Where all that snatching get you filled up with hollow tips,” meaning a place where snitching isn’t tolerated, a real place, where real people come from (Sky Don’t Be Mad, [2:50]). (“Snatching” is another term used often in city jail lyrics to mean “snitching.”)
Police and prosecutors’ dependence on snitches is reflected in the paranoia in city jail rap lyrics concerned with who might be the “opposition”, or “ops,” meaning, who’s snitching. On “Trapp Betrayel,” the artist raps, “So much betrayal, it got me going insane.” Even for those who evade doing time by snitching face the paranoia of being retaliated against: “My n* turned state, told them people I kill ‘em, the fact that he still living, that shit killing his mental.” Natapoff writes that, “Not only do informants commit crimes themselves, but they erode social mechanisms for keeping the peace by creating distrust and inviting retaliation.”18
In Richmond city jail rap lyrics, artists seemingly always place the blame on individuals in their communities, and not on the state, for the prevalence of snitches. This shows how deeply hyper-individualism is entrenched in society and in how we recognize guilt. The system that coercers people into convicting themselves through plea agreements and often turning them into snitches is never addressed in city jail rap lyrics. As Baldwin wrote, “It is clearly much easier to drag some ignorant wretch to court and burden him with whatever crimes one likes than it is to undergo the inconvenience and possible danger of finding out what actually happened, and who is actually guilty.”19
Section III Endnotes:
1 Alexander, Michelle. Introduction to The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2. New York: New Press, 2020.
2 Baldwin, James. No Name in the Street, 143-144. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 1972.
3 Schenwar, Maya. Law, Victoria. Introduction to Prison By Any Other Name, 92. The New Press, New York, 2020.
4 Schenwar, Maya. Law, Victoria. “Communities As Open-air-prisons” Chapter. In, Prison By Any Other Name. The New Press, New York, 2020.
5 Schenwar, Maya. Law, Victoria. “Communities As Open-air-prisons” Chapter. In, Prison By Any Other Name, 154. The New Press, New York, 2020.
6 Oliver, Ned. “In One of Richmond’s Highest Crime Neighborhoods, a Plea for Police Accountability. ‘There’s No Respect.’.” Virginia Mercury, 14 July 2020. (Link in text)
7 Natapoff, Alexandra. “The Real Deal: Understanding Snitching” In Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, 15-16. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
8 Alexander, Michelle. “The Lockdown: Bad Deal.” Chapter. In, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 110. New York: New Press, 2020.
9 Alexander, Michelle. “The Lockdown: Bad Deal.” Chapter. In, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 109 -112. New York: New Press, 2020.
10 Natapoff, Alexandra. “Secret Justice” Chapter. In, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, 89. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
12 Alexander, Michelle. “The Lockdown: Bad Deal.” Chapter. In, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 109 -112. New York: New Press, 2020.
13 Link to 2018 U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.
14 Natapoff, Alexandra. “Beyond Unreliable” Chapter. In, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, 70. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
15 Natapoff, Alexandra. “Snitching in the ‘Hood” Chapter. In, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, 112-114. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
16 Natapoff, Alexandra. “Snitching in the ‘Hood” Chapter. In, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, 103. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
17 Nielson, Erik, Andrea L. Dennis, and Killer Mike. “Hip Hop: From the Margins to the Mainstream” Chapter. In Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, 55. New York: The New Press, 2019.
18 Natapoff, Alexandra. “Snitching in the ‘Hood” Chapter. In, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, 111. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
19 Baldwin, James. No Name in the Street, 144. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 1972.