Race, Prison, and Poverty

The Race To Incarcerate In The Age Of Correctional Keynesianism

Paul Street

In the last two-and-a-half decades, the prison population has undergone what the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics director Jan Chaiken last year called "literally incredible" expansion. Chaiken reported a quadrupling of the U.S. incarceration rate since 1975. That rate, more than 600 prisoners for every 100,000 people, is by far the highest in the industrialized world. The U.S. incarcerates its citizens at a rate six times higher than Canada, England, and France, seven times higher than Switzerland and Holland, and ten times Sweden and Finland. Beyond sheer magnitude, a second aspect of America's incarceration boom is its heavily racialized nature. On any given day, Chaiken reported, 30 percent of African-American males ages 20 to 29 are "under correctional supervision" ‹either in jail or prison or on probation or parole. Especially chilling is a statistical model used by the Bureau of Justice Statistics to determine the lifetime chances of incarceration for individuals in different racial and ethnic groups. Based on current rates, it predicts that a young Black man age 16 in 1996 faces a 29 percent chance of spending time in prison during his life. The corresponding statistic for white men in the same age group is 4 percent. According to Thomas K. Lowenstein, director of the Electronic Policy Network, 7 percent of Black children- nearly 9 times more than white children- have an incarcerated parent.

In Illinois, the prison population has grown by more than 60 percent since 1990. That growth has been fueled especially by Black admissions, including a rising number of nonviolent drug offenders. Two thirds of the state's more than 44,000 prisoners are African-American. According to the Chicago Reporter, a monthly magazine that covers race and poverty issues, 1 in 5 Black Cook County (which contains Chicago and some of its suburbs) men in their 20s are either in prison or jail or on parole. For Cook County whites of the same gender and age, the corresponding ratio is 1 in 104. Illinois has 115,746 more persons enrolled in its 4-year public universities than in its prisons. When it comes to Blacks, however, it has 10,000 more prisoners. For every African-American enrolled in those universities, two and a-half Blacks are in prison or on parole in Illinois. Similar racially specific reversals of meaning can be found in other states with significant Black populations. In New York, the Justice Policy Institute reports that more Blacks entered prison just for drug offense than graduated from the state's massive university system with undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees combined in the 1990s.

In some inner-city neighborhoods, a preponderant majority of Black males now possess criminal records. According to Congressperson Danny Davis, fully 70 percent of men between ages 18 and 45 in the impoverished North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago's West Side are ex-offenders. Chris Moore, director of the Chicago Urban League's Male Involvement Program, which provides support services to 16- to 35-year-old fathers in 2 high poverty South Side neighborhoods, reports that the same percentage of his clients are saddled with criminal records. Job placement counselors at the League's Employment, Training, and Counseling Department estimate that half of their 3,742 predominantly Black clients last year listed felony records as a leading barrier to employment. Criminologists Dina Rose and Todd Clear found Black neighborhoods in Tallahassee where every resident could identify at least one friend or relative who has been incarcerated. In predominantly Black urban communities across the country, incarceration is so widespread and commonplace that it has become what Chaiken calls "almost a normative life experience."

A Many-Sided Disenfranchisement

Researchers and advocates tracking the impact of mass incarceration find a number of devastating consequences in high-poverty Black communities. The most well known form of this so-called "collateral damage in the war on drugs" is the widespread political disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons. Ten states deny voting rights for life to ex-felons. According to the Sentencing Project, 46 states prohibit inmates from voting while serving a felony sentence, 32 states deny the vote to felons on parole, and 29 states disenfranchise felony probationers. Thanks to these rules, 13 percent of all Black men in the U.S. have lost their electoral rights- "a bitter aftermath," notes British sociologist David Ladipo, "to the expansion of voting rights secured, at such cost, by the freedom marches of the fifties and sixties." But the economic effects are equally significant. When prison and felony records are thrown into that mixture, the labor market consequences are often disastrous. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear academic researchers and service providers cite unemployment rates as high as 50 percent for people with records. One study, based in California during the early 1990s, found that just 21 percent of that state's parolees were working full time. In a detailed study, Karen Needels found that less than 40 percent of 1,176 men released from Georgia's prison system in 1976 had any officially recorded earnings in each year from 1983 to 1991. For those with earnings, average annual wages were exceedingly low and differed significantly by race: white former inmates averaged $7,880 per year and Blacks made just $4,762. In the most widely cited study in the growing literature on the labor market consequences of racially disparate criminal justice policies, Harvard economist Richard Freeman used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY). Limiting his sample to out-of-school men and controlling for numerous variables (drug usage, education, region, and age) that might bias upward the link between criminal records and weak labor market attachment, Freeman found that those who had been in jail or on probation in 1980 had a 19 percent higher chance of being unemployed in 1988 than those with no involvement in the criminal justice system. He also found that prison records reduced the amount of time employed after release by 25 to 30 percent.

More recently, Princeton sociologist Bruce Western has mined NLSY data to show that incarceration has "large and enduring effects on job-prospects of ex-convicts." He finds that the negative labor market effects of youth incarceration can last for more than a decade and that adult incarceration reduces paid employment by five to ten weeks annually. Since incarceration rates are especially high among those with the least power in the labor market (young and unskilled minority men), he shows, U.S. incarceration dramatically exacerbates inequality. This research is consistent with numerous experimental studies suggesting that the employment prospects of job applicants with criminal records are far worse than the chances of persons who have never been convicted or imprisoned and from the testimony of job placement professionals who deal with ex-offenders. "Even when paroled inmates are able to find jobs," the New York Times reported last Fall, "they earn only half as much as people of the same social and economic background who have not been incarcerated." The obstacles to ex-offender employment include the simple refusal of many employers to even consider hiring an "ex-con." Employers routinely check for criminal backgrounds in numerous sectors, including banking, security, financial services, law, education, and health care. But for many jobs, employer attitudes are irrelevant: state codes places steep barriers to the hiring of ex-offenders in numerous government and other occupations. At the same time, ex-offenders are further disadvantaged in the labor market by the nature of daily prison experience. "The increasingly violent and overcrowded state of prisons and jails," notes Western, "is likely to produce certain attitudes, mannerisms, and behavioral practices that 'on the inside' function to enhance survival but are not compatible with success in the conventional job market." The alternately aggressive and sullen posture that prevails behind bars is deadly in a job market where entry-level occupations increasingly demand "soft" skills related to selling and customer service. In this as in countless other ways, the inmate may be removed, at least temporarily, from prison but prison lives on within the ex-offender, limiting his "freedom" on the "outside." The barriers to employment created by mass incarceration for African-Americans are not limited to those with records. As sociologist Elijah Anderson has noted, the "astonishing" number and percentage of Black men who are under the supervision of the criminal justice system "must be considered partly responsible for the widespread perception of young Black men as dangerous and not to be trusted."

Ex-offenders' chances for successful "reintegration" are worsened by the de-legitimization of rehabilitation that has accompanied the rise of the American mass incarceration state. Under the now dominant penal paradigm of literal "incapacitation," the number of inmates enrolled in drug treatment, job-training, or educational programs has been in steep decline since the 1980s. According to the Institute on Crime, Justice, and Corrections, just 9 percent of prisoners are currently engaged in full-time job-training or education activities. Numerous states, including New York, have eliminated inmates' right to take college extension courses and Congress has repealed prisoners' right to receive Pell grants to pay for college tuition.

Savage Ironies and Sinister Synergies

The situation arising from mass Black incarceration is fraught with savage, self-fulfilling policy ironies and sinister sociological synergies. Criminal justice policies are pushing hundreds of thousands of already disadvantaged and impoverished "underclass" Blacks further from minimally remunerative engagement with the labor market.

According to Lowenstein, 80 percent of America's prison inmates are parents. Researchers estimate that children of prisoners are five times more likely to experience incarceration than those who never experience the pain of having one of their parents imprisoned. Meanwhile, incarceration deepens a job-skill deficit that a significant body of research shows to be a leading factor explaining "criminal" behavior among disadvantaged people in the first place. "Crime rates are inversely related," Richard B. Freeman and Jeffrey Fagan have shown, "to expected legal wages, particularly among young males with limited job skills or prospects." The "war on drugs" that contributes so strongly to minority incarceration inflates the price of underground substances, combining with ex-offenders' shortage of marketable skills in the legal economy to create irresistible incentives for parolees to engage in precisely the sort of income-generating conduct that leads back to prison.

In Illinois today, 36 percent of ex-offenders and a staggering 48 percent of Black ex-offenders return to prison within three years. These numbers bother Danny Davis, whose Seventh District on Chicago's West Side contains five ex-prisoner transition centers. As men and women in his district "transition from incarceration to freedom," Davis recently told the Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee, "What they need most are jobs. What they find instead," Davis has learned, "are cold stares, unreturned phone calls, and closed doors. The jobs are far and few between, and in most cases non-existent" even for "serious and earnest men and women, working to clean up their act, and transition into productive citizens."

Denied what Davis calls "a second chance to become productive citizens," even rehabilitation- minded ex-offenders often find themselves re-enmeshed in illicit but income-generating activities that land them back in downstate lockups. The lost potential earnings, savings, consumer demand, and human and social capital that result from mass incarceration cost Black communities untold millions of dollars in potential economic development, worsening an inner-city political economy already crippled by decades of capital flight and de-industrialization. The dazed, battered, and embittered products of the prison-industrial complex are released back into a relatively small number of predominantly Black and high-poverty zip-codes and census tracts, deepening the savage concentration of poverty, crime, and despair that is the hallmark of modern American "hyper-segregation" by race and class.

The growth in spending on prisons is directly related to a decline in the growth of positive social spending in such poverty- and crime-reducing areas as education, child-care, and job training. Sociologists John Hagan and Ronit Dinovitzer find that public investment in incarceration is now "so extensive that several large states now spend as much or more money to incarcerate young adults than to educate their college-age citizens." From the 1980s through the 1990s, they report, correctional spending has risen at a faster rate than any other type of state expenditure category, creating significant opportunity costs that contribute to a vicious, self-fulfilling circle of negative public investment.

The New Racism

Meanwhile, prisoners' deletion from official U.S. unemployment statistics contributes to excessively rosy perceptions of American socioeconomic performance that worsen the political climate for minorities. Bruce Western has shown that factoring incarceration into unemployment rates challenges the conventional American notion that the United States' "unregulated" labor markets have been out-performing Europe's supposedly hyper-regulated employment system. Far from taking a laissez-faire approach, "the U.S. state has made a large and coercive intervention into the labor market through the expansion of the legal system." An American unemployment rate adjusted for imprisonment would rise by two points, giving the U.S. a jobless ratio much closer to that of European nations, where including inmates jobless count raises the joblessness rate by a few tenths of a percentage point. Including incarceration would especially boost the official Black male unemployment rate, which Western estimates, counting prison, at nearly 39 percent during the mid-1990s. If you factor in incarceration, Western and his colleague Becky Petit find, there was "no enduring recovery in the employment of young Black high-school drop-outs" during the long Clinton boom.

By artificially reducing both aggregate and racially specific unemployment rates, mass incarceration makes it easier for the majority culture to continue to ignore the urban ghettoes that live on beneath official rhetoric about "opportunity" being generated by "free markets." It facilitates the elimination of honest discussion of America's deep and inseparably linked inequalities of race and class from the nation's public discourse. It encourages and enables a "new," subtler racism in an age when open, public displays of bigotry have been discredited. Relying heavily on longstanding American opportunity myths and standard class ideology, this new racism blames inner-city minorities for their own "failure" to match white performance in a supposedly now free, meritorious, and color-blind society. Whites who believe, thanks partly to the decline of explicit public racism, that racial barriers have been lifted in the United States think that people of color who do not "succeed" fall short because of choices they made and/or because of inherent cultural or even biological limitations. "As white America sees it," write Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs Brown in their disturbing By The Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race (2000), "every effort has been made to welcome Blacks into the American mainstream, and now they're on their own... 'We got the message; we made the corrections- get on with it.'"

Correctional Keynesianism
The ultimate policy irony at the heart of America's passion for prisons is summarized in the phrase correctional Kenynesianism. The prison construction boom, fed by the rising "market" of Black offenders, is an often remarkable job and tax-base creator and local economic multiplier for predominantly white "down" or "up" state communities that are generally removed from urban minority concentrations. Those communities, themselves often recently hollowed-out by the de-industrializing and family farm-destroying gales of the "free market" system, have become part of a prison-industrial lobby that presses for harsher sentences and tougher laws, seeking to protect and expand their economic base even as crime rates continue to fall. With good reason: prison-building boom serves as what Ladipo calls "a latter-day Keynesian infrastuctural investment program for [often] blight-struck communities... Indeed, it has been phenomenally successful in terms of creating relatively secure, decent paid, and often unionized jobs." According to Todd Clear, the negative labor market effects of mass incarceration on black communities are probably minor "compared to the economic relocation of resources" from Black to white communities that mass incarceration entails. As Clear explains in cool and candid terms: "Each prisoner represents an economic asset that has been removed from that community and placed elsewhere. As an economic being, the person would spend money at or near his or her area of residence- typically, an inner city. Imprisonment displaces that economic activity: Instead of buying snacks in a local deli, the prisoner makes those purchases in a prison commissary. The removal may represent a loss of economic value to the home community, but it is a boon to the prison community. Each prisoner represents as much as $25,000 in income for the community in which the prison is located, not to mention the value of constructing the prison facility in the first place. This can be a massive transfer of value: A young male worth a few thousand dollars of support to children and local purchases is transformed into a $25,000 financial asset to a rural prison community. The economy of the rural community is artificially amplified, the local city economy artificially deflated."

Consistent with this a recent Chicago Tribune story bears the perverse title "Towns Put Dreams in Prisons." In downstate Hoopeston, Illinois, the Tribune reports, there is "talk of the mothballed canneries that once made this a boom town and whether any of that bustling spirit might return if the Illinois Department of Corrections comes to town." "You don't like to think about incarceration," Hoopeston's Mayor told the Tribune, "but this is an opportunity for Hoopeston. We've been plagued by plant closings." Ault's willingness to enter the prison sweepstakes was validated by another small town mayor, Andy Hutchens of Ina, Illinois. According to the Tribune, in a passage that reminds us to include diversion of tax revenue among the ways that mass incarceration steals wealth from the inner city: "Before [Ina's] prison was built, the city took in just $17,000 a year in motor fuel tax revenue. Now the figure is more like $72,000. Last year's municipal budget appropriation was $380,000. More than half of that money is prison revenue. Streets that were paved in chipped gravel and oil for generations soon will all be covered in asphalt. An $850,000 community center that doubles as a gym and computer lab for the school across the street is being paid for with prison money," Hutchens said.

"It really figures out this way. This little town of 450 people is getting the tax money of a town of 2,700," Hutchens said, and then added with a grin, "And those people in that prison can't vote me out of office."

Mass Incarceration

According to "get-tough on crime" politicians and policy-makers, "prison works": it reduces crime rates. But that intuitively seductive argument, which cites the declining federal crime index of the 1990s as its primary evidence, cannot explain why crime rates increased in the 1970s and the late 1980s while prison rates grew at the same rate as they did in the 1990s. It ignores the fact that drug convictions do not figure into the federal index‹a crucial omission since incarceration rates are strongly fed by the "war on drugs." It ignores the strong possibility that other factors, including the record-length economic expansion of the 1990s, provide better explanations than mass incarceration for declining official crime. It is embarrassed, finally, by comparative international data. U.S. citizens are just as likely to be victimized by crime as citizens in European countries who jail and imprison relatively tiny percentages of their population because they view prisons as fundamentally criminogenic‹as breeders of crime. Americans are far more likely than their low-incarceration European counterparts to be victimized by rape, murder, robbery, and violent assault in general.

Clear has discovered three "crime-enhancing effects of prison" on impoverished urban communities. First, the rampant arrest and incarceration of inner-city youth for drug crimes creates an ironic "replacement effect" that "cancels out the crime-prevention benefits of incapacitation." In the face of a stable demand for illegal substances, mass arrest and incarceration "creates job openings in the drug delivery enterprise and allows for an ever-broadening recruitment of citizens into the illegal trade." Modern criminal justice practice is often blind to this phenomenon, Clear argued, because its "atomistic" understanding of criminal behavior as purely individual behavior obscures the group basis of much illegal inner-city activity. Second, mass incarceration deepens the presence of negative "social factors" that contribute to "criminality" in minority communities: broken families, inequality, poverty, alienation, and social disorder. Third, mass incarceration ironically undercuts the deterrent power of prison.

"As more people acquire a grounded knowledge of prison life," Clear learned, "the power of prison to deter crime through fear is diminished." Thus, Newsweek reporter Ellis Cose noted last year that prison has "become so routine" in some neighborhoods "that going in can be an opportunity for reconnecting with friends." A drug-dealer from Maryland told Cose of his "panic on conviction. Having heard horror stories about young men abused inside, he fretted about how he would fend off attacks. Once behind bars, he discovered that the population consisted largely of buddies from the hood. Instead of something to fear, prison 'was like a big camp.'"

Clear and fellow criminologist Dina Rose think that certain U.S. communities have reached what they see as a curious criminal justice "tipping point"- the locus at which repressive state policies actually drive up crime rates. When 1 percent or more of a neighborhood's residents are imprisoned per year, they theorize, mass incarceration incapacitates neighborhood social networks to the point where they can no longer keep crime under control. But, of course, the communities "tipped" by criminal justice policies are located in a relatively small number of minority-based inner-city zip codes. The record 600,000 offenders released from prison last year "return," notes the New York Times, "largely to poor neighborhoods of large cities."

Part of the Tangle

It is no simple matter to determine the precise extent to which mass incarceration is exacerbating the deep socio-economic and related cultural and political traumas that already plague inner-city communities and help explain disproportionate Black "criminality," arrest, and incarceration in the first place. Still, it is undeniable that the race to incarcerate is having a profoundly negative effect on Black communities. Equally undeniable is the fact that Black incarceration rates reflect deep racial bias in the criminal justice system and the broader society. Do the cheerleaders of "get tough" crime and sentencing policy really believe that African-Americans deserve to suffer so disproportionately at the hands of the criminal justice system? There is a vast literature showing that structural, institutional, and cultural racism and severe segregation by race and class are leading causes of inner-city crime. Another considerable body of literature shows that Blacks are victims of racial bias at every level of the criminal justice system‹from stop, frisk, and arrest to prosecution, sentencing, release, and execution. These disparities give legitimacy to the movement of ex-offender groups for the expungement of criminal and prison records for many nonviolent offenses, especially in cases where ex-convicts have shown an earnest desire to "go straight." Further and deeper remedies will be required. These include a moratorium on new prison construction (to stop the insidious, self-replicating expansion of the prison-industrial complex), the repeal of laws that deny voting rights to felons and ex-felons, amnesty and release for most inmates convicted of non-violent crimes, de-criminalization of narcotics, the repeal of the "war on drugs" at home and abroad, revision of state and federal sentencing and local "zero tolerance" practices and ordinances, abolition of racial, ethnic, and class profiling in police practice, and the outlawing of private, for-profit prisons and other economic activities that derive investment gain from mass incarceration.

Activists and policy makers should call and make plans for a criminal- to social-justice "peace dividend": the large-scale transfer of funds spent on mass arrest, surveillance, and incarceration into such policy areas as drug treatment, job-training, transitional services for ex-offenders, and public education regarding the employment potential of ex-offenders. They should call and make plans for the diversion of criminal justice resources from "crime in the streets" (i.e., the harassment and imprisonment of lower- class and inner-city people) to serious engagement with under-sentenced "crime in the suites." More broadly, they should seek a general redistribution of resources from privileged and often fantastically wealthy persons to those most penalized from birth by America's long and intertwined history of inherited class and race privilege.

America's expanding prison, probation, and parole populations are recruited especially from what leading slavery reparations advocate Randall Robinson calls "the millions of African-Americans bottom-mired in urban hells by the savage time-release social debilitations of American slavery." The ultimate solutions lay, perhaps, beyond the parameters of the existing politic-economic order. "Capitalism," Eugene Debs argued in 1920, "needs and must have the prison to protect itself from the [lower-class] criminals it has created." But the examples of Western Europe and Canada, where policy makers prefer prevention and rehabilitation through more social-democratic approaches, show that mass incarceration is hardly an inevitable product of capitalism per se. Nothing can excuse policymakers and activists from the responsibility to end racist criminal justice practices that are significantly exacerbating the difficulties faced by the nation's most truly and intractably disadvantaged. More then merely a symptom of the tangled mess of problems that create, sustain, and deepen America's savage patterns of class and race inequality, mass incarceration has become a central part of the mess. For these and other reasons, it will be an especially worthy target for creative, democratic protest and policy formation in the new millennium.

Originally published at Z Magazine

Paul Street is research director at the Chicago Urban League. His articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in In These Times, Z Magazine, Monthly Review, Dissent, Journal of Social History, Mid-America, and the Journal of American Ethnic History.

Back To History Is A Weapon's Front Page