Our country faces a major racial issue in its penal system. American prisons are overwhelmingly full of black men. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid (Alexander). Black males make up 8.6% of U.S public school enrollment but comprise of 60% of all incarcerated youth in America, are three times more likely to be imprisoned than white males under the age of 18 and are more likely to receive their GEDs in prison then graduate from college (Smith). These statistics are as unfortunate as they are alarming.
In this paper I will attempt to provide a comprehensive framework for this issue, complete with statistics and examples about the effect this racial pattern has on people of color as clients, on practitioners working with this demographic and on me as a citizen of my community. I will look at the impact of loss that incarceration of a major demographic – black and brown people – has had on communities of color. My discussion will include my own perspective and the implications that this issue has for social work as a profession. I will conclude with a brief summary of my findings, thoughts, and observations.
The overrepresentation of black men in American prisons is a significant part of an increasingly apparent issue in this country: mass incarceration. The U.S. makes up 5% of the total world population, yet we as a country are responsible for 25% of the world’s prison population. In just the last three decades, the number of incarnated persons held in U.S. federal prisons has spiked by nearly 80 percent (Occupy America). David Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project says:
“There has been in this country over the last 30 years a relentless upward climb in the incarcerated population and disturbing as the situation is with the federal prison system, that is really only the tip of the iceberg because the federal prison system is only about 10 percent of the total number of people incarcerated in this country. On any given day, we have about 2.3 million people behind bars in federal, state and local facilities.”
During the course of my research I found a litany of articles suggesting reasons for the recent spike in incarceration numbers in American prisons. Some articles speak about politicians modifying laws to appear tougher on crime, others studies argue and provide evidence for inherent racism in our criminal justice system as the reason for the inflated numbers. However, the most consistent and prominent contributing factor that I came across was a term called “the prison industrial complex.”
In Will Purcell’s piece, “The Prison Industrial Complex: A Modern Justification for African Enslavement” he explains the term clearly. The privatization of American prisons has created incentive for prisons to collect more inmates in order to make a profit. Inmate labor can cover costs for the prison, thus making the facility more profitable. A for-profit prison system, coupled with government bureaucrats, private industry, and politicians, has contributed to the mass expansion of the criminal justice system.
No group of people has been more affected by this trend than African American men. Rose Brewer observes in her piece The Racialization of Crime and Punishment that, “the current explosion in criminalization and incarceration is unprecedented in size, scope, and negative consequences—both direct and collateral—for communities of color.” African Americans represent 12% of the U.S. population but make up 37% of federal prisoners (Occupy America) and on any given day one out of every ten black males in their 30s is statistically in prison (sentencing project). The rates at which blacks and whites enter the penal system are staggeringly disproportionate, as American prisons are overwhelmingly occupied by black men. For a visual representation of just how disproportionate the trend is, see the chart below.
The overwhelming rate at which black men are incarcerated has a long lasting effect on the communities, families, economies, and societal/cultural structures left behind. According to Diane Sweet at Occupy America, going to prison reduces social mobility and increases the likelihood that prisoners and their families remain trapped in a cycle of poverty. With husbands leaving behind families, two parent households are reduced to single parent households, two income households are reduced to one, and parental responsibilities that were once shared are now placed on, in most cases, the mother. Children grow up without fathers, mothers grow old without husbands, and communities evolve without a constructive male presence, leaving young male children fewer positive male role models to learn from.
Diane Sweet’s argument is easy to understand. The effects of black male incarceration are significant enough to create and perpetuate a cycle of poverty in communities of color. The odds of a single mother securing a job which allows her to provide stable housing, healthy food, reliable transportation, necessary insurance, all the necessary costs that children require, while maintaining a consistent presence as a mother in her children’s life is greatly affected by the incarceration of a father/husband/partner. While entirely possible, and there are countless examples of single mothers from colored communities raising successful children, Diane Sweet’s point (one that I agree with) is that the process of breaking out of a cycle of poverty is made more difficult with the incarceration of black fathers.
I come from a two parent household. Between them, due to two incomes, I was provided with social mobility. I went to private schools, was exposed to diversity, and was able to take part in opportunities that were available to me because of my socioeconomic position on society’s hierarchical ladder. My parents had the time and money to provide for me in a way that they felt would allow me to be successful. I was afforded the luxury to develop at a rate that was comfortable to me and was not forced to face harsh realities before I was ready.
My upbringing is something that I will always be grateful for, but I know for a fact that if my father had gone to prison during my childhood my life would have been much different. My mother might have had to work harder to make money, spending less time raising me. Her primary concerns would have become putting food on the table, paying rent, and making sure I received a proper education. I might have been held less accountable for my actions due to a sudden decrease in parental involvement and without a present male role model I may have learned to model my behavior from my peers (which is often times a negative thing). We may have had to make sacrifices. Without a father I may not have had access to as many opportunities that would benefit me and my development. I may have had to face harsher emotional and financial realities before I was ready.
The National Association of Social Work defines the profession as, “helping to enhance human well-being and helping to meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty (NASW).” Social workers need to recognize that male minorities are becoming incarcerated at a rapidly increasing rate, leaving children, families, and those incarcerated vulnerable and more susceptible to living in poverty. Recognizing and working to address this trend is in the very essence of what social work is as a profession, and social workers have to become proficient in working with clients affected by this issue. The client base will be diverse and may include anyone affected by incarceration rates: children, mothers, other family members, and incarcerated men themselves (Young).
The trend of mass incarceration of the African American community is a form of political oppression which lies in direct contrast to the direction that our society is trying to move in. I feel that the rate at which black men are being incarcerated in this country is a characterization of black individuals, families, groups, and communities by our police system and plays right into the hands of the “prison industrial complex.” This trend is both oppressive and wrong. As a citizen of the community and a future social worker I will commit to utilizing this perspective when dealing with clients affected by incarceration.
As Social Workers, it is our job to work with these vulnerable populations and strive for social justice. By employing a special sensitivity to the experiences of all oppressed and undeserved groups in American society, in this case people effected by incarceration, we can work to end the disproportionate rate at which black men become incarcerated. By helping people (family, friends, politicians, law enforcement, etc.) to understand how our criminal justice system is characterizing and oppressing an important group of people through incarceration, we can strive for social justice.