Race, Prison, and Poverty


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

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

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.”

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.


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

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.’”



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

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.”



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

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.

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.

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,
, Journal of Social History,
, and the Journal of American Ethnic History.