The Impact of Disproportionate Minority Confinement on Communities of Color

Introduction:

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 Issue:

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.

http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=122

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).

Conclusion:

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.

Shut Down

Nobody needs to be told about what is happening in Washington right now. Its disgusting, tragic, unprecedented, shameful, and any other colorful negative description you can think of. 800,000 employees have been without work for over two weeks now, with no end in sight. I myself am so mad about this I have been avoiding discussing it with friends and colleagues because of how startlingly angry I become. But who do we direct our anger at? Is it responsible of us to be angry at all politicians and our way of governing in general? I don’t think so. I think it’s important to look objectively at what is happening and place blame clearly and squarely upon the people responsible: the Tea Party.

shut down

In most undesirable circumstances there is plenty of blame to go around. That old saying usually applies: “it takes two to tango.” I get that. However, in this case I believe that the blame doesn’t go around, instead it starts and stops with this political group, and they are the only ones tangoing. Tea Party republicans have waged a crusade against Obama for years and will stop at nothing to embarrass him. They have put themselves ahead of the needs of the country and we are all paying the price. Here is my best (truncated) analogy for what is happening:

Two children in school have a disagreement. The first thinks that the school should provide every student with pencils. The second child hates the idea. To resolve the issue they call the principle. The principle decides that it’s a good idea and once the money is in order the school board will create a new policy providing pencils to every student. Universal pencil disbursement. Needless to say the second kid is pissed. He gathers all his cronies together and makes an appeal the next day. After a very long meeting with the principle, the group of miffed students are unsuccessful. The policy remains unchanged. Now the second kid is beside himself with anger. He decides that from this moment on, until the time he graduates, he is going to make it his personal mission to undermine the pencil policy. If he yells loud enough and is diligent enough in sabotaging the policy at every turn, maybe, just maybe, he can get the get what he wants.

The first child with the pencil plan is Obama and his affordable healthcare plan. Child number two represents the tea party republicans who have attempted to repeal Obama care over 40 times. OVER 40 TIMES! Even after Obama was re-elected by a landslide, the supreme court found the policy constitutional, and our government is shutdown, this senseless group still make it their primary objective to repeal Obamas healthcare plan. The people, law makers, courts, and American people have spoken. “Obama Care” is a law. Please respect that fact and the political process by which it was made and let our government go back to work.

Republicans are on the wrong side of history. Wrong side of immigration policy, social issues, minorities young people, women, and now the best interests and well being of our country. It is a shameless display of ignorance, ego, and denial from a party that refuses to let go of the idea that America is a constantly evolving country that grows increasingly tolerant, diverse, and unorthodox. As long as this faction of the republican party remains in tact this country will not see a republican president or any productive discourse between the two major parties. Hopefully it ends soon.

Smart Phones

Hey everyone! Its been awhile. I just want to check in briefly with a short commentary on smart phones.

For years now people have been telling me to get a smarter phone than the one I currently have (the Intensity 2). It’s more efficient, looks better, its helpful when you’re lost and helpful for knowing when the next bus is. They’re just great. Right? I always respond with, “yeah, I’m sure I’ll get one eventually.” But I never have.

Part of me doesn’t like touch screens, but most of me has resisted because every day I see more and more people glued to smart phones like they’re reading the final chapter in a Harry Potter book. Sometimes I get a glance of what people are looking at and 90% of the time they’re playing games or viewing the newest social media site. More and more I feel that we as a society have become less personable. It’s so easy to not engage, so easy to sit back and tap into the endless entertainment that is the internet. Sometimes when I’m out to eat with friends each of us will have  our phone on the table ready to check at a moment’s notice. Sometimes while eating, we will all be checking our phones SIMULTANEOUSLY!!! It’s really gotten me down.

But until the other day I couldn’t articulate exactly why I didn’t have a smart phone until I saw this clip. It’s spot on.

Now, I will not sit here and pretend that I don’t use modern technology as an escape. I love Netflix, HBOGO, Facebook, and all that. But I’m trying to draw a line somewhere between getting an iphone and renouncing all my processions, moving to a commune, and never shaving again. Enjoy. Jackson.

Food Stamp Challenge – Final Experience

When I first learned of the food stamp challenge I thought it would be an easy assignment. In 2010 (my first year out of college) I lived on a food stamp budget for a year while working for AmeriCorps. I learned quickly that stretching $200 a month took preparation and resolve. Each trip to the grocery store was a calculated expedition that involved critical thinking and strategy. My mantra was “buy what I need, not what I want.”

After each trip ample time was required to prepare food for the week ahead. Pasta with chicken and pesto was a favorite. A hefty batch of this could last me four or five days. Beans, rice, eggs, milk, bread, and tap water rounded out much of my diet that year. As much as I wanted to use my food stamps to buy ice cream, organic milk, frozen pizza, or fruit, I had to stay on budget and only buy what I knew would last. This was difficult at first, but got progressively easier over time. At the end of that year I felt I had mastered the art of the food stamp budget. I was so competent that frozen pizza, organic milk, ice cream and fruit became part of my diet. Needless to say this assignment did not scare me. I even welcomed the challenge and felt that in my paper I could offer helpful insight into completing it successfully.

Unfortunately, that was a different time. I never considered the significance that a stable living environment has on ones ability to live healthily and within their means. My current living situation is unstable. I live in an apartment owned by my parents in Central Square. During the summer my mother rents the apartment out four days a week to pay for my sisters education. This has left me scrambling for places to stay until I move to Washington DC in August. For the past two months I have slept on couches at many different houses. Sometimes I need to find a new place to stay each night. This has been both fun and difficult. I’m lucky because of the willingness of my friends to take me in, but at the same time it has been hard. Moving around so much is exhausting.

food

The food stamp challenge could not have come at a worse time for me. Our place has been rented all week and I have been scrambling around, working two jobs and completing a busy course load. With such a fluctuating schedule I have found it to be incredibly difficult to shop, prepare food, and keep food refrigerated to last me a week. I have not had access to Tupperware, a regular refrigerator, stove or cooking supplies. Because of this I have had to buy all my food day of.

At first I lamented the idea that the assignment was unfair to me at this time. I felt angry that I was being expected to sacrifice my lifestyle when I was already experiencing an unstable living environment. I quickly realized however that many people on food stamps might be in similar situations and most likely have it worse. With this in mind I forged forward attempting to stay within my budget. This proved extremely difficult.

I have made a concerted effort to eat less and stay as close to my $33 a week budget as possible, but I have gone over. Roughly, I have spent about $9 a day bringing my total to $63. I cut my meals down to about two a day (which I believe to be considerable), only drink tap water, and have eaten smaller portions at mealtime. The result of this has been me feeling hungry a significant amount. Cliff bars have been a huge help. I spend $1.89 for a bar that fills me up for hours while giving me energy to exercise and be active at work. I have eaten a significant amount of pasta as well. However, about once a day I have been so hungry that I purchased a meal of some sort: a hamburger, Panini, or pasta dish. This has really been out of desperation.

It has been interesting to see that most of my emotions during this assignment have been negative, manifesting as frustration, embarrassment, anxiety, and even shame. Probably the most prominent emotion I felt during this assignment was anxiety. During the times when I saw people eating big meals with beverages and getting seconds without reservation I became anxious. I knew that I could not afford to eat the same thing and I did everything I could do hide this fact from these people. It may have been the beginnings of shame. My experience with this assignment lasted a week. Many people do not have this luxury. Being surrounded by this feeling everyday could lead to severe anxiety and inferiority issues for me.

I felt so confident initially but grew increasingly incensed at my inability to complete the assignment successfully. I recorded in my observations that “hunger is a powerful thing” and I realize that it can be my biggest motivator. It is hard to concentrate on the everyday tasks of leading a healthy productive life when I felt hungry. All other tasks were put on hold my hunger was dealt with. All I could think about was when and where my next meal would come from. My work ethic, job performance, and overall health suffered. My hunger was alleviated somewhat on the days when I had to work for long hours. I work as a caterer and a basketball coach and both jobs lend to being active. This helped me forget my hunger and plow through some of the days without feeling too feint.

alpine-liquor-store-food-stamps

This project relates back to the Core Competencies in a few ways. Applying critical thinking to inform and communicate professional judgment this week has been important in my quest to be successful. Attempting to live off $33 a week requires a sufficient amount of critical thinking in order to stay within the parameters of the assignment. Planning ahead and researching the most effective method of food stamp living has helped me understand, from a theoretical perspective, the SNAP program and its affect on social work.

Engaging diversity and difference in practice is another Core Competency that I experienced during this experience. Living off this budget helped me recognize the extent to which a culture’s structure and values may oppress, marginalize, alienate, create, or enhance privilege and power (NASW). I was struck throughout this week by how hard it was to stay on budget without a stable living situation. Ironically it may be the people who lack a stable living situate who need food stamps the most and $33 a week is simply not enough. Luckily I was could afford to go over the budget and feed myself and survive the week without too much hardship. But, if I was given $33 and literally had nothing else to live on I might have been in real trouble.

My view of the food stamp program has changed drastically since completing this assignment. I believe that this program marginalizes people with unstable living conditions. Simply put, it is unrealistic. It is hard to critique a program that provides assistance to so many people but with so much money being spent in other areas (i.e. the military) I feel that this program should be drastically overhauled. The type of lifestyle this budget allows for leads to health concerns, negative social stigmas, and anxiety. With more than half of the people on food stamps being children it is in our nations best interest to increase the amount of money recipients receive (HYPERLINK “http://www.frac.org/”http://www.frac.org).

This has been an eye opening experience. I learned a lot. I learned what it felt like to be hungry for a week. I learned what it felt like to see other people eating to their hearts content while being hungry. I learned how hard it is to regularly exercise, eat healthily, and indulge while on this budget. This has been a wonderfully informative and eye opening experience.

Day 4/5

Day 4

Today I spent under $10. For breakfast I had a cliff bar. Then I worked till 7pm. I work for a catering company part time so I’m around food a lot. Part of this challenge involves not eating anything you don’t pay for. However, when they supplied us with the staff meal I was so hungry I indulged (I literally felt light headed from the hunger). I wolfed down a sandwich and a large plate of pasta. I could have eaten two sandwiches and two plates of pasta but I showed some restraint I guess.

After work I ate a hamburger at 9pm and called it a night. Again I was starving. I guess I am used to eating a lot. At times I can feel my stomach shrinking (which is good?). Again, not being able to store and prepare food ahead of time has made it extremely difficult to stay on budget.

Day 5

Today I did not spend a single dollar. I had orientation for the basketball company I work for from 9am to 2pm where bagels were supplied. Then from 3pm to 12:30am I catered a wedding where food was supplied. Again, excepting food without paying for it is against the rules but being that I dont have the ability to prepare food I think its alright. Today was easier because being busy made me think less about hunger. The days when I have long stretches of sitting around seem to be the hardest.

Day 1

Today has been rough. I made a major mistake right off the bat by not shopping and preparing my meals before hand. I attempted to just “eat less,” a strategy that made me desperate for food not matter the cost. I ended up spending $10.07 on my first meal at 11:30am and $3.00 a breakfast sandwich at 4:30pm. $13!!! This is way over my daily budget of $4.71. Tomorrow I am going to a cheap store to buy pasta, sauce, bread, and MAYBE some cheap form of chicken. I hope to stretch these items for three or four days at least.

My confidence at being able to complete this task “no problem” has been shaken. I am not sure how my remaining budget of under $25 will last 6 days. I’m hypothesizing that eating small quantities frequently will keep my hunger at bay and suppress the urge to buy something I cannot afford. Its still early but I’ve already learned that living off this budget takes planning, strategy and resolve. Until tomorrow.

Jackson

Gun Control

This morning 26 people, including 18 children, were killed at an elementary school in Connecticut.  The details are still coming out. We don’t yet fully know who the shooter is, the extent of everyones injuries, or the reason for the attack. Apparently a 20-something male equipped with a Glock and a Sig Sauer (hand guns) got off around 100 rounds in a classroom before either taking his life or being taken out by police. More details will come out as time goes on.

School shootings and other random senseless acts of violence have been occurring more frequently in the last couple months. Off the top of my head I can think of the Trayvon Martin, the Batman movie premier, the Kansas City Chiefs player who shot his wife 9 times before killing himself, the Virginia Tech shooter, and the high school student in Ohio who killed some of his classmates with a semi-automatic weapon. For a timeline of massive shootings see the link below:

http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0777958.html).

White House spokesmen Jay Carney has said “while today is not the day to debate gun policy, an assault weapons ban “does remain a commitment” of President Obama.”

Here is my question. When can we debate gun policy and why not today? It seems like every time there is major gun violence in this country people say now is not the time to discuss it. It has been deemed insensitive. How many school shootings and senseless acts of violence is it going to take before we start really talking about more gun control? It needs to happen now.

Trayvon Martin was killed by a self appointmented neighborhood watchman patrolling the streets with guns, James Holmes walked into a movie theatre with a AR-15 military-style semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and a Glock pistol, and shot 70 people. In the previous weeks he had ordered 6,000 rounds of ammunition and multiple magazines over the internet, including a 100-round drum magazine for the rifle. Jovan Belcher shot the mother of his 3 month old child and killed himself. He was 25. The list goes on and on.

Gun control is a serious issue in this country. Always has been. Its a tough subject to broach because there are so many Americans who cling to their right to own. Guns have been a way of life for a long time and many people feel that their right to own one is fundamental. It is has become so engrained in our society that we have created a “culture of guns” in this country and within this culture we have made it too easy to attain them.

Something needs to be done in this country so that 24 year olds can’t order 6,000 rounds of ammunition, non-police officers can’t roam the streets locked and loaded, and 20 somethings can’t wander into elementary schools and shoot 26 people. We should be talking about gun laws in this country and how we can make it safer. Its not politics to do so. We owe it to families and the victims of these crimes.