Criminal injustice: Wounds from incarceration that never heal

Criminal injustice: Wounds from incarceration that never heal

Video Courtesy of #VICEonHBO

Mass incarceration damages individuals and communities in ways that scholars are just starting to explore.

Research that we’ve published with our colleague Mary Laske Bell shows that African American men who are former inmates are irrevocably harmed by time they spent behind bars.

This finding is troubling because incarceration has increased over the last four decades due to mandatory minimums and the war on drugs. Specifically, there has been a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates over the last 40 years. Despite decreasing crime rates, the United States locks up more people than any other nation. Although home to only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

Furthermore, our judicial system is inefficient. Men and women who have not been convicted of a crime, rot in unsafe, overcrowded and understaffed jails waiting for their day in court. This is especially true in large urban areas. For example, inmates in Chicago’s jails in 2015 served the equivalent of 218 years more time waiting for trial than the sentences they would ultimately be given. Housing the inmates for this extra time cost taxpayers $11 million.

The money may be the least of it. Consider the case of Kalief Browder, who was 16 years old when arrested and who spent three years in Rikers Island – including two in solitary confinement – before his case was dismissed. The trauma of those years alone behind bars lingered. At 22, Browder committed suicide.

Inmate at San Quentin. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Racial bias and disparities

It gets worse: Lady Justice is far from colorblind.

Michelle Alexander memorably labeled mass incarceration “The New Jim Crow” in her landmark book of the same name.

African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million persons incarcerated and are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. One in three African American men will experience prison; white men’s risk is just 6 percent. Hispanic men are almost three times as likely to be imprisoned as non-Hispanic white men. The poor are also disproportionately represented behind bars.

Collateral damage and scarring effects

The wives, girlfriends and children of African American men who go to jail or prison suffer collateral damage. Studies show that the children of inmates do less well in school and exhibit behavioral problems. In addition, women partnered with inmates suffer from depression and economic hardship.

One might assume that being released from jail or prison would represent an opportunity to make good on commitments to be a better person and return to normal life. If incarceration actually rehabilitated inmates, then that assumption would make sense. But alas, it does not, despite what many people believe.

Evidence instead suggests that being locked away scars, stigmatizes and damages inmates. A history of incarceration has been linked to vulnerability to disease, greater likelihood of cigarette smoking and even premature death.

The psyche of the formerly incarcerated

Our new study looked at how having a family member locked up related to psychological distress (a measure of mental health) among African American men, some of whom have done time. There is not a lot of data from respondents about their history of incarceration. The assumption is that no one wants to disclose that they were locked up. And most scholarly attention focuses on collateral damage, neglecting the experiences of the formerly incarcerated.

Using existing survey data from the National Survey of American Life, we invoked the stress process model to predict psychological distress. We asked if familial incarceration was a stressor that went above and beyond the typical stress people experience. We controlled for social determinants that affect mental health, including age, education, marital status, employment and childhood health. We focused on variables that helped determine the character of familial incarceration including chronic stress, family emotional support and mastery.

Going into the study, we expected that all African American men would be distressed by the imprisonment of an immediate family member. We also expected that men who had been locked up would experience even higher levels of psychological distress because they would empathize with their family member who was currently behind bars.

We were right on one count. Men who had never been incarcerated did experience high levels of distress when a family member was locked up.

But what we found among formerly incarcerated African American men was totally unexpected. When their immediate family members were in jail or prison, formerly incarcerated black men reported low levels of psychological distress. How low? Lower than never incarcerated black men without relatives in jail or prison. And – even more surprisingly – lower than formerly incarcerated men without imprisoned relatives. How could this be possible?

After re-checking the analyses for errors and finding none, we speculated that formerly incarcerated African American men may feel no empathy for their immediate family members who were currently in jail or prison.

Empathetic inurement

Lack of empathy may be a valuable survival strategy in jail or prison, but our findings imply that this “empathetic inurement” follows these men back into the community.

We think that formerly incarcerated African American men return home to families and communities that desperately need them changed in a terrible way. They may be tone-deaf when it comes to recognizing the suffering of their currently incarcerated family members. Even more, they may be unable to act as model citizens or good husbands or loving fathers.

How incarceration injures humanity

Remember that we aim to punish offenders such that they better respect the rights of others and follow the norms associated with responsible citizenship. Cesare Beccaria, the father of criminology, taught us that the purpose of punishment was to prevent future crime.

But do we treat former inmates as full members of society? In 34 states, people who are on parole or probation cannot vote. In 12 states, a felony conviction means never voting again. In addition, prior incarceration can affect one’s ability to secure certain federal benefits or get a job.

These facts indicate failure of the punishment imperative and demonstrate that reform is overdue. This is especially true given the results of a recent study that showed some black men will spend almost one third of their lives in prison or “marked” with a felony conviction.

Prospects for the future

The United States spends about $80 billion yearly on corrections. As such, the economic crisis of 2008 ignited debate about how to decrease incarceration in the United States.

Such debate bled into discussions about access to high-quality education and health care, differential sentencing, gentrification, joblessness, residential racial segregation, wealth disparities, urban decay and pollution and lingering social inequalities.

Policy makers soon discovered that there was nothing simple about reducing the incarceration rate.

Allowed to continue unreformed, mass incarceration will shape our nation in ways that should repulse anyone who values the correlated concepts of freedom and redemption. Unless we consider mass incarceration a moral and policy failure, it will splinter already fragile families and communities. That will ultimately hurt our entire nation.The Conversation

Tony N. Brown, Associate Professor of Sociology, Vanderbilt University and Evelyn Patterson, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Vanderbilt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Black rural voters could be key to Democrats eyeing Georgia

Black rural voters could be key to Democrats eyeing Georgia

Video Courtesy How to Vote in Every State

WARNER ROBINS, Ga.  — Sitting on the wooden pews of a small white brick church on a hot Wednesday afternoon in central Georgia, a group of residents gathered to chat about the upcoming governor’s race and the issues concerning them in their community, from economic development to health care to infrastructure.

A particular topic of interest was a strategy for voter turnout — and how to fight the barriers to it — in what could be a pivotal midterm election.

“We’ve got to get out to the nursing homes, tell the DJ if that’s what we’ve got to do to get to the young folks,” said Houston County NAACP Vice President Jonathan Johnson, thinking aloud as the audience nodded in agreement. “We could start a cookout . If we could do that as a community, we could make a big difference in this election.”

These were not the rural voters who have gotten so much attention after helping elect President Donald Trump in 2016. They are the black rural voters living in red states. They’re staunchly Democratic even as they’re surrounded by white voters who are almost all Republicans. And they’re often overlooked by big-name candidates from both parties.

“There’s a narrative that is out in the world right now around what rural America looks like, and it completely erases the existence of black rural folks,” said Tamika Middleton, organizing director for Care in Action, a domestic workers advocacy group, in attendance at the church gathering. “We exist. There’s never been black folks who were not fighting and resisting in the rural South.”

The Black Belt’s overlap with Trump country could factor into the elections across the South next month, including competitive races for the governor’s mansion in Florida and the Senate in Mississippi. That raises the possibility that black rural voters will have an unusual opportunity to make an impact on statewide races.

But it’s Georgia where black rural voters could be especially important as Stacey Abrams campaigns to become the nation’s first black female governor. A Mississippi native who moved to Georgia as a child, Abrams is the first Democrat in years to have a real chance of winning the governor’s race. And from the beginning, when she launched her campaign in south Georgia’s Dougherty County, she’s made outreach to rural voters a key part of her strategy.

“Since the beginning of the campaign, Stacey Abrams has been focused on reaching out to a broad coalition of voters in every part of the state, including rural communities of color who have been left behind for too long,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager.

Statewide, a third of rural Georgians are people of color, and Abrams has been making her case to black rural voters in churches like the one in Warner Robins. In recent months, she has spent time in towns like Riceboro, Americus, Thomasville, Fort Valley and Cordele — far from the usual Democratic campaign stops like Atlanta, Savannah, Macon and Albany.

During the primary, Abrams’ efforts paid off in places like predominantly black Washington County, where she campaigned in May. Turnout there nearly doubled from four years earlier, with Abrams getting 69 percent of the vote this spring, according to turnout data from the Georgia secretary of state.

Rural blacks’ priorities often differ from those of their urban counterparts. Many suffer from health disparities, including obesity, maternal mortality, diabetes and sickle cell, living in regions with few hospitals, governed by state officials who have rejected the expansion of Medicaid that would help them afford treatment. The Black Belt was historically an agricultural region that remains starved for economic development, and the class and power divide that began during slavery still persists along racial lines in many communities.

While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 politically changed the region with the onslaught of black public elected officials, another result was voter suppression, said Georgia State University historian Maurice Hobson.

“It’s a black population that has been so mistreated and so marginalized by the political system that many people are like, ‘My vote doesn’t count anyway,'” Hobson said. “There is a sense of hopelessness.”

That dynamic has paralyzed some blacks in the South, but this fall’s midterms could signal a shift among those voters and a way forward for Democrats seeking their votes.

“Our people have voted year after year after year, and they have not seen their lives change,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which is touring the black South to register and turn out voters this cycle, told the crowd in Warner Robins. “We got a black woman that is the Democratic nominee at the top of the ticket in a state where we couldn’t even vote . Y’all are standing on land where our people died as slaves . We gotta remember that.”

Kattie Kendrick, former Peach County Democratic Party chairwoman, who was on a recent tour stop in Fort Valley, Georgia, said that mobilizing voters in her part of the state has been challenging but that outside interest could help to energize them.

“We do not necessarily unite, but when other people know that the black people in Peach County and throughout rural Georgia matter, that makes a difference,” Kendrick said.

Down the road in Terrell County, the Rev. Ezekiel Holley plotted how to get nearly 1,000 of his neighbors who typically vote in presidential elections to show up for the midterms. Nicknamed “Terrible Terrell,” three churches in the county were burned in the 1950s to keep blacks from voting. Today, Holley said, the problem is apathy and frustration with elected officials who forget they can’t see a doctor or need their roads paved.

“Most of our citizens feel that people we have elected have let us down,” he explained. “They get elected and forget about who elected them and their platform. So why should I keep on voting for you?”

“The majority of the national politicians feel that … they don’t have to worry about little rural places. Most folks are concentrating on metro Atlanta more than the rest of Georgia. Hopefully they’re getting the picture now,” Holley said.

Holley went to see Abrams speak at a campaign event earlier this month with former President Jimmy Carter in his hometown of Plains. The pair talked about Medicaid expansion, which Holley believes will bring jobs, better health conditions and industry into the state. That she announced her plans there said to him that she cares about his corner of the state.

It’s a message Holley plans to take to the registered voters he hopes to help turn out in Terrell County in the coming few weeks, but he’s still not sure whether they will show up.

“I can’t give a good answer on that yet,” he said. “People are excited, but Nov. 6 is going to tell the story.”