Black men, prisons, poverty

Bruce Western, at Harvard, has studied the link between black men, prisons and poverty in books like “Punishment and Inequality in America” (Photo: Harvard Website)

When mass incarceration policies were first implemented in the 1970s, they enjoyed widespread support among African American leaders, who were eager to clean up drug- and crime-ridden neighborhoods.

But as prison time has become the new norm, particularly for black men, researchers are studying the link between serving time and long-term poverty.  This from the New York Times.

“Prison has become the new poverty trap,” said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist. “It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”

Among African-Americans who have grown up during the era of mass incarceration, one in four has had a parent locked up at some point during childhood.

For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.

It goes without saying that carving years or decades out of a person’s life will have an impact on their economic fortunes.  Tough to build a 401k when you’re behind bars.

But research shows that even when people are released, having served their full bid behind bars, employers want little to do with them.  This from an NPR report in late January:

While it’s generally illegal for employers to indiscriminately deny all applicants with criminal records, many still do. A quick look at New York job postings on Craigslist, for example, reveals common caveats: “absolutely no felony convictions” or “must have clean criminal record.”

“This is blatantly illegal hiring practice,” says Sally Friedman, a lawyer at the Legal Action Center.

Obviously, a lot of criminals deserve to serve time — sometimes a lot of time.

But when you’re locking up a significant percentage of a community’s men for a significant number of years, and then leaving them with a permanent employment stigma, that has consequences that go beyond the individual felon.

It impacts neighborhoods, business districts, civic institutions, families, property values, schools in ways that we’re just beginning to grapple with.

Bruce Western’s research has dug into some of this tension, including the tension sparked within the black community.  This from his website at Harvard:

“[R]ising rates of imprisonment among young black men without college education have caused a rift in African American society, and that those with less education are increasingly separated from those with higher education.”

What do you think?  Do we need to be thinking about the long-term economic impacts of incarceration?  Would communities be worse off if more of these guys were on the streets?  Are there workable alternatives?


Support for Prison Time

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, the NY Council for the Humanities and by numerous individual donors via Kickstarter. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust.