Jailhouse Blues l The Saturday Evening Post

Jailhouse Blues
 

Pelican Bay State Prison

Pelican Bay State Prison is designed to house California’s most serious criminal offenders. Photo courtesy California State Department of Corrections.

 

We are facing a crisis in America. The crisis is largely hidden from view, but like a cancer, it threatens the very health of society. We have become a superpower of incarceration. Today we warehouse 2.2 million inmates according to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report.

That’s more than the entire population of Houston. More than two-thirds that of Chicago.

China, with more than four times the U.S. population, is a distant second with 1.5 million inmates. The United States imprisons 760 people per 100,000. The number for France is 96, Germany 90, and Japan 63. As an NAACP advertisement points out, we are 5 percent of the world’s population and we house 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

How did we get here? Between 1925 and 1972, our state inmate population increased 105 percent—roughly proportionate to the country’s overall growth. Since 1973, when stiffer sentencing came in—particularly the so-called Rockefeller drug laws providing lengthy minimum sentences for possession of small quantities of banned substances—the number of prisoners has increased more than 700 percent. That’s about 14 times the country’s overall growth.
The costs are staggering. In a survey of 40 participating states, the Vera Institute of Justice concluded that U.S. taxpayers were shouldering an annual bill of $39 billion. And that’s just the direct costs. Indirect costs, which tend to be carried by government agencies other than corrections departments, are incalculable.

“The system is so skewed,” laments Bob DeSena, executive director of Council For Unity, an anti-gang initiative headquartered in New York City. “As a society we are completely focused on punishment. People are willing to spend hundreds of thousands on incarceration, but they don’t want to spend a few dollars on programs that are proven to prevent them from becoming criminals in the first place.”

What to do with criminals—what warrants imprisonment, for how long, and how to reintegrate released men and women—is one of society’s most difficult challenges. In modern times, the great philosophical debate has been whether the mission is to reform or to punish. And possibly no society has cycled quite so widely between the two extremes as America.

The prison reform movement started more than 200 years ago, in the throes of the Industrial Revolution when a surge in the urban population came with a steep rise in crime. At the time, jail was little more than a means of segregating malefactors from the rest of the population. Perpetrators who weren’t killed outright (Pennsylvania, the first state to outlaw capital punishment for theft, didn’t do so until 1786) were dealt with harshly, confined in dungeons or tawdry, violent, and often disease-ridden jails.

One early attempt at reform was nearly as harsh as the system it replaced. New York’s Auburn Prison, built in 1816, was governed by the then-radical notion that prisoners were capable of change. Hence, prisoners were put to work, and community activity was encouraged during the day. But strict silence was enforced at all times, and prisoners were isolated in solitary confinement at night. Prisoners who so much as broke the silence were flogged or hung by their wrists or had their heads locked in iron cages.

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The Saturday Evening Post

Study: Black Male Incarcerations Jumped 500% from 1986 to 2004, Resulting in a Mental Health Crisis l Your Black World

Study: Black Male Incarcerations Jumped 500% from 1986 to 2004, Resulting in a Mental Health Crisis

by Dr. Boyce Watkins

A report has been released at Meharry Medical College School of Medicine about the devastating impact that mass incarceration has on our society.  The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, is one of the most thorough examinations of the impact that mass incarceration has on the African American community.  The study’s authors argue that the billions of dollars being spent keeping non-violent offenders behind bars would be better spent on education and rehabilitation.

“Instead of getting health care and education from civil society, African American males are being funneled into the prison system. Much of this costly practice could be avoided in the long-term by transferring funds away from prisons and into education,” says Dr. William D Richie, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Meharry Medical College, lead author of the paper.

The study’s authors note that 60% of all incarcerations are due to non-violent, drug-related crimes.   The authors also note that the cost of substance abuse in the United States is as high as half a trillion dollars per year.

“Spending money on prevention and intervention of substance abuse treatment programs will yield better results than spending on correctional facilities,” the authors claim in the study.

Finally, the authors note that while crime rates have declined over the last 20 years, incarceration rates has climbed through the roof. The inmates occupying these jail cells are disproportionately black.  In fact, the black male incarceration rate has jumped by 500% between 1986 the 2004.  The authors note that, even for those who don’t abuse drugs before going to prison, the likelihood of substance abuse after prison goes up dramatically.

You can read more of the study at this link

The mass incarceration epidemic affects all of us, even those who haven’t gone to prison: It affects the child who grows up without  a father who has been incarcerated, the children who are bullied at school by that child, the woman seeking a husband who can’t find a good man to marry, the list goes on and on.  When so many of our men are marginalized and incarcerated, this has a powerful impact on the sociological ecosystem of the black community, the same way an economy crumbles when a few large companies go bankrupt.

The point here is that we cannot look at the holocaust of mass incarceration as someone else’s problem or something that just affects criminals.  The punishment should fit the crime, and when every study imaginable says that black people are more likely to go to jail for the same crimes, this means that Jim Crow is alive and well.  Something must be done at the grassroots, state and federal levels.  We cannot allow this epidemic to exist any longer.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the creator of the “Building Outstanding Men and Boys (BOMB) Family Empowerment Series” To have Dr Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.