Imprisonment on Individuals, Families, and Communities
Incarceration and its Impacts
"Research has shown that the American prison system -- and the "get tough" approach to crime that has helped increase the incarceration rates -- impacts just the entire society, especially poor communities…" (Shelden, 2004, p. 6).
Incarceration certainly has an impact -- mostly negative -- on the individual that is incarcerated. But what about the family of the incarcerated person? And what about the community where the incarcerated person lived and worked prior to his imprisonment? How are families (including wives ad children) and communities impacted by the incarceration of a member of a family in that community? These issues will be reviewed and critiqued in this paper.
The Influence of Local Politics on the Incarceration of Minorities
It is interesting to note that while the incarceration of individuals has a direct effect on the lives and health of prisoners and families and communities, the ideological makeup of a community also has an effect on the ethnicity of those imprisoned. Hence, in turn, the incarceration policies that include an unfair percentage of minorities have an impact on the cultural makeup of those communities. Author Garrick Percival writes in the peer-reviewed Social Science Quarterly that when it comes to a conservative community -- a town or city that tends to be ideologically conservative -- the data shows there will be "higher rates of & #8230;both black and Hispanic incarceration" (Percival, 2010, p. 1063.
Counties with "…greater racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to incarcerate blacks and Hispanics," Percival explains (1063). The author sites research done by scholars that shows the reasons behind the imprisoning of minorities; researchers have verified through empirical studies that quite apart from what the percentage is of races or ethnicities that have been locked up, conservative states -- i.e. "red states" -- have generally "higher rates of incarceration than liberal states" (Percival, 1065). Why would conservative states have higher rates of incarceration than liberal states? Percival posits that it reflects the "…long-standing differences between ideological orientation" (1065). Ideological conservatives tend to see criminal behavior "…as a matter of personal choice" made by the suspect, Percival continues, and hence conservatives focus on "deterrence and incapacitation-based policy responses" (1065).
Ideological liberals, on the other hand, have a tendency to see crime as "…a function of structural impediments to success" and liberals generally place "…more emphasis on crime prevention policies rather than punishment after the fact (Percival, 1065). In fact by placing blame for street crime and "other social ills" on a "racial (black) underclass, conservative Republicans [make] veiled appeals to anti-minority… lower-income conservative whites" through the punitive crime policies (Percival, 1066). Hence, a conservative town or city that has within its various cultural and ethnic communities a significant number of minorities -- in particular blacks -- one can expect to see more blacks incarcerated than other ethnicities. Indeed, the "old fashioned white racism" groups no longer claims blacks are genetically inferior but the racist policies exist because of the perception that blacks are a "violent, criminal underclass" (Percival, 1066).
African-American Men and the Prison Industrial Complex
On the subject of blacks and imprisonment, a peer-reviewed article in The Western Journal of Black Studies delves into the impact on the financial and emotional health of the African-American community because so many black men who have been imprisoned. The "mass incarceration of African-American men" began in 1980, according to Smith, et al. (2010, p. 387), and a great deal of emphasis has been placed by scholars and journalists on the lives of those incarcerated men. But the impact of incarceration on the families of those men, and on the community they lived in, has not been as thoroughly explored, Smith explains.
The authors refer to the "Prison Industrial Complex" (PIC) -- which has a "similar growth history as the Military Industrial Complex" that President Eisenhower warned the American people about in 1961 -- as a place not just for deterrence or rehabilitation but more realistically the PIC is an institution that methodically removes men from their families and communities and exploits their labor (Smith, 388).
The actual experience of a black man in prison -- and whether or not he is put to work in prison at very low wages -- becomes "irrelevant," Smith writes. What is relevant is the depletion of capital from his family and his community, and not only is the removal of the man part of the depletion of capital from that African-American community, so is his return also deplete capital. Indeed, Smith asserts on page 389, the impact of the incarceration of so many black men "…goes far beyond the individual who is incarcerated and can be understood as a modern day extension of the plantation slave economy and Jim Crow segregation."
The reason for the depletion of capital in the community once the felon is released from prison? Those coming back to "the free world" face "enormous barriers" for employment; to wit, "Employers in most states can deny jobs to people who were arrested but never convicted of any crime" (Smith, 393). And when a felon comes home and can't find work, "…it means the community has less access to resources and wealth" (Smith, 394). When Congress enacted very tough laws in the 1980s that punished drug dealers for small quantities of cocaine or heroin -- giving convicted drug dealers the same number of years in prison ("minimum of 15 years to life") as those who were convicted of second degree murder -- it imprisoned tens of thousands of African-Americans. And in doing so, capital was removed from African-American communities.
Smith takes a fairly extreme position in his conclusion. He posits that the capitalists of the 20th and 21st centuries have designed a "legal way" -- which, Smith declares, is articulated in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- to "exploit the labor of African-American men just as their forefathers did in the previous centuries" (396). In the long run, the PIC and law enforcement policies have continued to "…restrict the accumulation of capital by African-American families and African-American communities (Smith, 396).
Impacts of Incarceration on the African-American Family
Although this is not a research paper exclusively investigating the literature on African-Americans being incarcerated, there is no doubt that institutions in many regions of the country have high percentages of black men. What about African-American families when a father is in prison? An article in the peer-reviewed Journal of African-American Men reflects the fact that while in 1985 the incarceration rate of African-Americans was 368 per 100,000, by 1995 the rate rose to 727 per 100,000. And while much of the literature about black families has concentrated on the black woman and her role, the role of black men in the family "…is one of the most conspicuously neglected areas of family research" in the country (Miller, 2001, p. 4).
Adding to the mix in this genre is the fact that half of the black men in prison are fathers, which goes against the "common portrayal of the incarcerated male" which is that of a "social misfit" or a "loner" or a man who has been totally disenfranchised from the society. These fathers are concerned about their families and they suffer from the guilt of not being a "good provider"; and Miller explains that a man's identity (no matter his ethnicity) is "shaped and bolstered" by his role as provider for his family.
Hence, the salient point of this article is that a black man in prison with a family back home has very serious issues due to the impact on his family and on himself; to wit: a) he experiences "a loss of closeness; b) he worries about divorce before or after his release (studies reveal the fact that many families "never reunite after his release"); c) he is sexually frustrated and believes that his wife is frustrated too and yet he can't do anything about it; d) he is intensely lonely and worries that his wife is "experiencing crisis-provoking events alone"; e) he may have a problem coping with "the positive changes [his wife] has experienced while he has been away" (she may have changed jobs, gone to school and made new friends); f) his role in the family has changed drastically and this "can be quite threatening"; and g) he worries that he won't fit back into the marital unit and is greatly stressed over this (Miller, 5-6).
As to the children of fathers who are incarcerated, in many cases the mother fails to take into consideration the impact on children. Later in this paper the deception that many parents use to keep their children from knowing the truth is discussed in detail; Miller, meanwhile, notes that children that have been deceived can later in life demonstrate "…greater disobedience, temper outbursts, and even destructive or delinquent behaviors" (Miller, 8).
Parents in Prison: Justice Literacy and Public Policy
African-American children are "…more than seven times as likely as white…