African American Males and Incarceration

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  9  African American Males andthe Incarceration Problem Not Just Confined to Prison As long as Nina could remember, the prison system held unclesand cousins and grandfathers and always her father. Nina, likeToney and Lolli, was raised in the inner city; for all three, prisonfurther demarcated the already insular social geography. Along with the baby showers of teenagers, they attended prisoners’ going-away and coming-home parties. Drug dealing and arrestswere common on the afternoons Nina spent playing on the side-walk as she and her parents hung out with their friends. Peoplewould be hauled away, while others would unexpectedly reap- pear, angrier or subdued. Corrections officers escorted one hand-cuffed cousin to Nina’s great-grandmother’s funeral; her favoriteuncle had to be unshackled in order to approach his dying grand-mother’s hospital bedside. The prison system was part of the tex-ture of family life. —LeBlanc (2003) 233 09-Hattery-45198.qxd 3/20/2007 2:40 PM Page 233  Corporations that appear to be far removed from the business of  punishment are intimately involved in the expansion of the prison industrial complex. —Davis (1998), p. 16  Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo—obedient to our keep-ers, but dangerous to each other. —Davis (2003), p. 23 Dear Sister:One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on Black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be sointolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable amemory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in theirchains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safetyin chains and corpses. And so, Newsweek, civilized defender of the indefensible, attempts to drown you in a sea of crocodiletears (“it remained to be seen what sort of personal liberationshe had achieved”) and puts you on its cover, chained.You lookexceedingly alone—as alone, say, as the Jewish housewife in theboxcar headed for Dachau, or as any one of our ancestors,chained together in the name of Jesus, headed for a Christianland....If we know, then we must fight for your life as thoughit were our own—which it is—and render impassable with ourbodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you inthe morning, they will be coming for us that night. —Baldwin (1971), pp. 19, 23 Objectives ã Examine the rate of incarceration and growth of prisons in the United Statesover the past century. ã Examine the demographics of the prison, particularly in terms of race and gen-der, including the rise in the incarceration of mothers and the special issues thiscreates for women but also for African American families. 234——African American Families 09-Hattery-45198.qxd 3/20/2007 2:40 PM Page 234  ã Examine the various ways in which prisons have entered the global economywith goods for sale on the world market. ã Examine the impact of incarceration on African American family life andAfrican American communities. ã Examine the relationship between felony records and employment and otherrights (housing, welfare, and voting). ã Examine the links between incarceration and other issues addressed in thisbook: employment, poverty, health, family life, and intimate partner violence. ã Identify solutions to the “incarceration addiction” 1 in America. Introduction In this book, we have already discussed some of the most pressing issues fac-ing African American civil society. In our discussions of family formation,health (HIV/AIDS), employment, and intimate partner violence (IPV), we havemade references to the role of incarceration in shaping those problems. AfricanAmerican women remain unmarried, raising their children alone in partbecause the fathers of their children are in prison. African American men arecontracting HIV/AIDS in prison and dying there, or, upon release, they arebringing HIV/AIDS back into the communities from which they came, infect-ing their female partners along the way. A criminal record makes it difficultto find employment, and one of the major risk factors for IPV is male unem-ployment. We are not arguing in this chapter that incarceration is the root of all of these problems, but we are noting that incarceration is a key piece of theweb of entanglement that traps many African American men and women in alife of struggle, poverty, ill health, violence, and limited life chances. Definitions The U.S. prison population, incarcerated in all types of institutions fromcounty jails to the new supermax prisons, has grown exponentially. Weacknowledge that one of the most confusing aspects of writing and readingabout prisons are the distinctions in various kinds of institutions. These dis-tinctions, although common parlance for those who work directly in thecriminal justice system, are often a bit hazy for the rest of us. Therefore, webegin with a few definitions. In this chapter, we tend to use the term  prison as shorthand for a variety of types of institutions. But it is important for thereader to be able to distinguish the different kinds of incarceration institu-tions that are present in the contemporary United States.  Jails.  Jails are administered at the county level. Jails exist to fill threeprimary functions. Jails hold inmates who (a) are awaiting trial and either African American Males and the Incarceration Problem——235 09-Hattery-45198.qxd 3/20/2007 2:40 PM Page 235  cannot make bail or have been denied bail; (b) are required to make a courtappearance for any reason—this is because jails are connected to court-houses, whereas prisons generally are not; and (c) are serving sentences of 364 days (1 year) or less. Prisons. Prisons are administered at both the state and federal level. Stateprisons hold inmates who (a) are convicted of state crimes 2 in thatstate; (b)have sentences of more than 1 year; and (c) are of all custody levels: mini-mum, medium, maximum, and death row (if the state has the death penalty).Some facilities hold all custody levels in the same prison, and others houseonly one or two custody levels in the same facility. Federal prisons holdinmates who are convicted of federal crimes. Inmates may be housed in anystate that has an appropriate federal prison. 3 Private Prisons. Private prisons are administered by corporations. Thelargest, Corrections Association of America (CAA), trades on the New YorkStock Exchange. In 2005, CAA’s total revenues were $1.2 billion. Privateprisons incarcerate inmates with sentences longer than 1 year but who areconvicted of either state or federal crimes. Private prisons are essentially a“leasing” system whereby states that have fewer prison beds than they needcan ship prisoners to other states for the term of their sentences. Most pri-vate prisons are in the economically depressed South and Southwest regionsof the country. Most of the inmates who are shipped out of state come fromstates in the Northeast and the Midwest. Supermax Prisons. The supermax prison is relatively new and houses twomain types of inmates: high-profile inmates who pose a serious security risk,and those who have exhibited such serious disciplinary problems that thisis the “end of the line” for them. For example, the supermax prison inFlorence, Colorado, is home to the September 11th terrorist ZachariasMoussaoui and Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols. In this supermax prison, 1,500 inmates are locked two to a cell for twenty-threehours a day in a space measuring 14 feet by 8 1/2 feet. The only time they willleave their cells will be for “recreation” alone in an attached outdoor “kennel”half the size of the cell. Food is pushed through slots in the door, and the onlyhuman interaction an inmate has is with his “roomie.” (Wray, 2000, p. 16) 4 Prisons as Total Institutions Every American interested in the U.S. prison system should read the explo-sive text by Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973/2002) titled TheGulag Archipelago. 5 This book reveals how similar the U.S. prison system isto the gulag. It is, in fact, a mirror image of the U.S. prison system in all of its details. American prisons are horrible places. They resemble the worst  in 236——African American Families 09-Hattery-45198.qxd 3/20/2007 2:40 PM Page 236
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