In contrast to what some lyrics in music tell us, there is a certain shame that former inmates carry with them every day. Criminality is celebrated by those who have never had to deal with the complexities of a system designed to weaken the human psyche with lasting effects that are oftentimes irreparable. From filling out job applications to applying for housing, the past of those who were previously incarcerated wishes to shed continues to follow them though they are technically “free”.
The industrial prison complex has been a thorn in the side of the African American community for several decades yet very little has been done to combat the hundreds of thousands of black and brown people that serve lengthy sentences that often do not fit the crimes committed. This is in no way to advocate that people who commit crimes should not be held accountable, however, one has to uncover the complexities of a system that was never meant to rehabilitate the countless bodies that enter the nation’s nearly two thousand federal and state prisons every day. For those fortunate to be released from prison, their days of bondage are far from over. Many are faced with entering a world that had drastically changed, the lack of meaningful employment or educational opportunities, and severed familial and communal ties just to name a few.
The impact of mass incarceration in the black community is immeasurable. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, one in three black males born today will be incarcerated compared to one out of 17 white males (2020) despite blacks making up about 13% of the population. Racial disparities are evident and widely discussed but the more sinister of the reasons for such high numbers of jailed individuals is simply the lack of monetary resources. Over a half of a million people are confined without ever being convicted or sentenced simply because they are unable to afford bail or bond (Sawyer & Wagner, 2020). The cycle of poverty leads to higher crime rates which in turn leads to higher confinement numbers.
Substance abuse is another major contributing factor to why incarceration rates are so high among African Americans. The criminalization of non-violent drug abuse and possession instead of treatment continues to be one of the largest reasons why minorities are policed and confined at larger rates. Currently, the legalization of marijuana in several states has been a hot topic as it relates to mass incarceration. While weed is a billion-dollar business mostly headed by white males, thousands of black and brown bodies are behind bars for the exact same act that others have made record profits from. These apparent and blatantly racist policies are direct evidence of how the United States justice system fails and does not view everyone as equals regardless of the word in the
Constitution. While there is a growing demand to decriminalize marijuana possession on a national scale, only time will tell if this actually becomes a reality during our lifetime.
Our communities must first address the root of why we are incarcerated at much higher rates than other races. Most research primarily correlates high incarceration levels to high poverty levels. Money or lack thereof is the basis of why specific groups commit crimes, are arrested, and remain jailed. It is true that we are disadvantaged when it concerns income disparities but like other obstacles, our communities have suffered it is something that is fixable. Educating ourselves and our youth early on about the importance of financial literacy is paramount to being able to make smarter decisions when it comes to understanding and building wealth. More importantly, we must pool those dollars back into our communities by creating jobs and financing social programs that focus on educating the youth as well as those who are recently released back into an ever-changing society. This archetype has had success repeatedly in the past but we must not expect anyone to help us especially when we can help ourselves.