The cost of incarceration

(Part one of an eight-part series)

WASHINGTON (NNPA)—In communities around the country, Black people are missing. Neighborhoods languish. Dreams deferred rot in distant warehouses we call prisons. The similarities between the correctional system and slavery are eerie: Families ripped apart. Traditions lost or never made. The shipment of flesh, the pipeline that nearly guarantees Black children go from the cradle to the prison; the insane profits made by warehousing human beings; the burden borne forever by those labeled as “convicts.”


Today, a brutal recession which dictates the need to cut budgets and proof that mass incarceration does not reduce crime is changing conversations in legislative halls around the country. Some politicians, who in the past have only paid attention to fearful constituents who want to make sure people who commit crimes are locked up, are beginning to consider alternatives to imprisonment. Meanwhile prison reform advocates are wondering if a Black president and a Black attorney general means a quicker end to the disparity in incarceration between Blacks and whites.

Prison “was never a tool to fight crime. It is an instrument to manage deprived and dishonored populations, which is quite a different task,” says Loic Wacquant, a renowned ethnographer and social theorist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. Still, speaking by e-mail, Wacquant warns that the journey between slavery and mass incarceration must include two other “peculiar” institutions created to define and confine Blacks: “Jim Crow and the urban ghetto.” Now, he says, “in the post-civil rights era, the penal system has gradually been recast to mean Black—and increasingly, Latino.”


“The explosive prison growth of the past 30 years didn’t happen by accident, and it wasn’t driven primarily by crime rates or broad social and economic forces beyond the reach of state government,” according to a report by the PEW Center on the States entitled, “One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections.” The report states, “It was the direct result of sentencing, release and other correctional policies that determine who goes to prison and how long they stay.”

Report after report tells exactly who goes to prison. Consider: “One in every three Black males born today can expect to go to prison if current trends continue. More than 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities,” according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization. “For Black males in their 20s, one in every eight is in prison or jail on any given day.”

GRIM STATISTICS—Blacks are three times more likely than Hispanics and five times more likely than Whites to be in jail.

These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs.” The Sentencing Project says three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

It may be too early to answer the question about Obama’s administration, though it did announce in April that it favors reform of a 20-year-old law that mandates a sentence of at least five years for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine with intent to distribute and the same penalty for five grams of crack cocaine.

This summer the House Judiciary Committee passed legislation intended to equalize federal sentences for offenses for crack and powder cocaine. The Senate is expected to introduce similar legislation. Driven by the recession, states are reducing their prison populations.

This month, North Carolina announced it is closing seven small prisons to save money. In California, a panel of judges for the state’s Eastern and Northern federal district courts ordered the state to reduce its prison population by about 40,000 persons within the next two years. The ruling was made because of overcrowding and the failure by the state to provide adequate medical and mental health care. Senator Jim Webb, D-Va., a longtime critic of the prison system, has introduced a bill to create a bipartisan commission to review the U.S. prison system and offer recommendations.

In every area of the country people are waiting and working for the change they hope will come.

PAYING THE PRICE—John Cooksey, left, co-owner of C & M Diner on Detroit’s East Side has watched the impact of crime and incarceration slowly ravage his business and community. Here he joins his partner, Alexander Martin, for a meal.

Others—those who have been in prison and those who have loved them—are living with the byproducts of incarceration, putting their lives back together, trying to forgive and heal.

“After an extraordinary quarter-century expansion of American prisons, one unmistakable policy truth has emerged: We can’t build our way to public safety,” Adam Gelb director of the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, said in the “One in 31” report.

John Cooksey, co-owner of C & M Diner, a threadbare soul food cafe, has watched his block of Mack Avenue on Detroit’s East Side gasp for breath because of crime and because of over incarceration of its residents.

“I know people who come in here and say, ‘I’ve been away for a while.’ Well, I already know; I’ve heard they have been in prison,” he says.

On the East Side, PEW reports, “In one block-group… 1 in 7 adult men (14.3 percent) is under correctional control,”

In Hollywood, Fla., 16-year-old Derrell lives with his father while trying to get to know his mother, Cassandra Adams, a convicted felon who spent most of her son’s growing up years in prison. It is a delicate balance of forgiveness and guilt and love. Adams lives in Charlotte, N.C., where she struggles to make a living working at low-paying jobs for the only employers who will hire someone with a criminal record.

In Chicago, fashion designer Barbara Bates is fighting for the release of her 25-year-old son who was sentenced to 19 years this spring for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and marijuana. “The time does not fit the crime loss of votes and rights,” Bates says.

At this time in history where there is the possibility for great change in how the country defines justice, Rev. Dr. Madeline McClenney-Sadler of Charlotte is hoping that the African-American community finally rises to stand up for their neighbors who desperately needs love.

“I grew up with a father who was very conscious about the responsibility of the Black middle class to helping Black people in general,” says Rev. Dr. McClenney-Sadler, who calls herself an “abolitionist.” She is founder of Exodus Foundation.Org, an organization that works to stop the flow of African-Americans to prison. “It’s not easy work. It means picking up the pieces and being family to people shipped to our states; being parents to the youth whose parents are incarcerated. As hokey as it sounds, it is all about love and the power of love to heal.

“What we need—and what I’m hoping for – is for our community to rise up in its historic tradition and help itself.”

(Editor’s Note: “The Cost of Incarceration” is an eight-part occasional series written by Patrice Gaines, former Washington Post reporter; author and co-founder of The Brown Angel Center, a program in Charlotte, N.C., that helps formerly incarcerated women become financially independent. Gaines received a 2009 Soros Justice Media Fellowship from the Open Society Institute to research and write articles on the impact of mass incarceration on the Black community. The NNPA News Service has agreed to make this exclusive series available to its membership of more than 200 Black-owned newspapers.)

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