Overcrowding in Prisons: Impacts on African-Americans
The overcrowded prisons in the United States are heavily populated by African-Americans, many of them incarcerated due to petty, non-violent crimes such as drug dealing. This paper points out that not only are today's prisons overcrowded, the fact of their being overcrowded negatively impacts the African-American community above and beyond the individuals who are locked up. This paper also points to the racist-themed legislation that has been an important reason why so many African-Americans are incarcerated -- and the paper points to the unjust sentencing laws that have unfairly targeted black men from the inner city.
When overcrowding becomes an extremely serious human and ethical problem such that state or federal prison officials must find a temporary solution, one trend that has been implemented is to move inmates to other prisons in distant states. However, according to author Othello Harris, who is also editor of the Journal of African-American Men, moving inmates to other states has the "…consequence of reducing the likelihood that prisoners will receive visits from their families and friends" (Harris, et al., 2003, 46). This of course impacts African-American families in a real way because decreased visitation availability takes away an otherwise positive effect for prisoners, Harris explains.
Hence, overcrowding influences the decisions that must be made by prison officials -- sometimes prodded by courts that demand a reduction in the population due to overcrowding -- that end up harming African-American families. Research referenced by Harris shows that "incarcerating inmates in a prison closer to their home would increase the probability of visitation" (Jackson, Templer, Reimer, and LeBaron, 1997) (46). Another research project that Harris presents shows that there is "…some indication" that visitation by loved ones and family has "positive effects" not only for prisoners but for the community they will return to (46).
There is a link, according to the research Harris has discovered, between "…the frequency of visitation and post-release success for prisoners" (four empirical scholarly studies are presented by Harris on page 46). In terms of African-American families (where one of the parents, usually the father, is incarcerated) visitations are known to "strengthen family systems that have been negatively impacted by the absence of husbands, sons, and fathers" (Harris, 46).
Moreover, regular visitations can reduce the frequency of "…behavior problems" among inmates; indeed, a study by Wooldredge (1999) reflected the fact that an inmate's 'psychological well being" can be impacted in a positive manner by frequent visitations from his wife or girlfriend (Harris, 46). Hence, relocating an inmate far from the region where he lived and where he was originally incarcerated is detrimental to the family relationship the inmate may be trying to keep alive while he serves time.
Prior to any discussion about relocating inmates to another state far from the inmate's family (hence, taking away visitation opportunities), the plain and painful fact is that visitation programs generically tend to be "…stringent and limited" (Harris, 48). The costs and added person-hours needed to make visitations possible tends to tax some prison budgets; moreover, the "…combination of low family income and the distance to the prison facility" makes visitation problematic for families on reduced incomes. The fact is that "…family members and inmates still face barriers" in the best of worlds but when prisoners are relocated far away because of overcrowding in prisons, it adds to the problems families encounter when trying to stay in touch (on a personal, one-on-one basis) with their imprisoned loved one or husband (Harris, 48)..
Social service agencies:
Social service professionals are apparently not providing what Harris calls "sufficient services to families" of incarcerated individuals (49). Notwithstanding the overcrowding situations and the fact of moving inmates to distant prison locations, social service agencies -- which may well be "equipped to strengthen family ties" -- have "…ignored the need to strengthen the family relationships between parents who are in prison" along with their offspring and other family members (Harris, 49).
The fact that social service agencies are failing to do what families of incarcerated individuals truly need is tragic because empirical research has shown that the frequency of visitation "…has been linked to positive outcomes, both in prison and post-institutional release" (Harris, 49). In fact "a significant number of studies" have shown that there is a "positive correlation between family visits and the reduction of recidivism" (Harris, 49). A study by Carlson and Cervera, (1992: 36) shows that the maintenance of good contact between an African-American inmate and his spouse, his children, and "extended family members and friends" helps him in positive ways to simply make the adjustment to the environment inside a prison (Harris, 49). Hence, overcrowding situations and the weaknesses inherent in the visitation system could be mitigated to some degree by effective social service agency intervention, but Harris contends that assistance is not forthcoming in many instances.
Why prisons became overcrowded in the 1980s:
It is certainly the case that before the 1980s there were overcrowded conditions in American prisons -- and those conditions negatively impacted the African-American community. But in the 1980s during the two terms of President Ronald Reagan "…harsher punishments for nonviolent drug crimes served the interest of politicians," writes Michael Hallet, assistant professor of Criminal Justice Administration at Middle Tennessee State University. Politicians that were interested in strategically "capitalizing on racial tension in American society" backed legislation that authorized "determinate" or "mandatory minimum" sentencing (Hallet, 2006, 149).
That legislation sought to "…lengthen the duration of time served by offenders" and also to "limit the ability of judges and parole boards" to give any breaks to offenders by reducing the time that offenders served (Hallet, 149). Overcrowding was the result of the increase in incarceration rates, but the important point for this paper is that "…the vast majority of offenders caught up in this war were African-American men" (Hallet, 150). In fact by the late 1980s U.S. prisons were "…extremely overcrowded and dangerous" -- so much so that about two-thirds of all correctional facilities were under orders from federal judges to "…reduce overcrowding for violations of inmates' Eighth Amendment rights" (Hallet, 150).
The laws were toughened considerably during Reagan's administration so that an individual caught with five grams of crack cocaine was automatically sentenced to five years in prison; the disparity is very obvious when one notes that an individual caught with 500 grams of power cocaine also was sentenced to five years in prison. "That's a sentencing ratio of 100-1," writes Gwen Ifill, commentator on PBS News Hour. At that time, it should be noted, a lot of media attention was focused on the sale of crack cocaine in the inner city, and Reagan's real intention, according to legal scholar Michelle Alexander, was to launch "…a mass incarceration of black males" (National Public Radio, 2012).
Alexander explains that "…millions of black arrested for minor crimes remain marginalized and disenfranchised, trapped by a criminal justice system that has forever branded then as felons and denied them basic rights and opportunities…" (NPR). Young black males are "…shuttled into prisons, branded as criminals and felons," and after they are released from overcrowded prisons they are "…relegated to a permanent second-class status," Alexander explains. In fact once they have been let out of the jam-packed prisons, they do not have the rights that the Civil Rights Movement had won for African-Americans, Alexander continues. They can't vote, they can't serve on juries, and their search for decent employment is often stymied by their prison record (Alexander, p. 2).
Federal funding boosted arrests of black men which led to overcrowded prisons:
Alexander asserts that by declaring war on crack cocaine Reagan pushed a "racially coded 'get tough' appeal" to poor and working class whites that were "resentful and anxious about and threatened by many of the gains…in the civil rights movement" (p.3). Part of the legislation Reagan advocated and signed into law offered incentives for state and local law enforcement to arrest as many drug users and sellers as possible. State and local cops were urged to "…go out and look for the so-called 'low-hanging fruit' (think minorities), and stop them, frisk them, and pull over "…as many cars as possible in order to boost their numbers up and ensure the funding stream [from Washington, D.C.] will continue or increase" (Alexander, p. 3).
Impacts of the "mass incarceration of African-American men":
In The Western Journal of Black Studies the authors take the position that while commentators, journalists, scholars and others have done "…a good job recognizing that mass incarceration devastates the lives of African-American men," that mass incarceration in prisons that are seriously overcrowded also has a devastating effect on the mothers, wives, girlfriends and friends of the incarcerated -- along with the communities from which the inmates came (Smith, et al., 2010, 387).
The mass incarceration of African-American men -- by the "Prison Industrial Complex" (PIC) -- has a devastating impact on the African-American community that is "depleted of resources and capital when vast numbers of its members are…