The United States counts for only five per cent of the world’s population, but we houses twenty-five per cent of the world’s prison population.
Of this number, African-Americans make up almost fifty per cent of the U.S. prison population even though they only represent 14 per cent of the total U.S. population. This rate of incarceration exists in spite of the fact that the rate of crime in the US is consistent with other industrialized nations, all of whom incarcerate at significantly lower levels. In the last three decades, from 1984 to 2014, the US prison population has tripled from just under 500,000 people incarcerated to more than 1.5 million today. The recidivism rates in the United States are equally discouraging. According to the National Institute of Justice,
fully 56% of all prisoners released return to jail within the first year.
By five years post-release, just over three-quarters of all former inmates are rearrested. While Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rate of any state except Maine, it has a three-year recidivism rate of almost 40%. In comparison to the US rate it would seem that as a state we are doing well. That is only if you compare Massachusetts to the rest of the United States. In 2013, the US incarcerated 830 people per 100,000 of population, while Massachusetts incarcerated its citizens at half that rate or 400 per 100,000 population.
It is estimated that fully 30% of male inmates and 70% of female inmates in Massachusetts are suffering from mental illness,
while 8% of males and 13% of female inmates are diagnosed with serious mental illness. Looking a little deeper into the demographics of who we incarcerate in the Commonwealth we see that 43% of male inmates and 33% of female inmates have less than a 6th grade education,and 55% of all inmates are either Black or Hispanic, significantly higher than their proportion of the population of the state which is only 18.2%.
So a quick look at our prison population reveals that Blacks and Hispanic are overrepresented by 300%. Persons suffering diagnosable mental illness are significantly overrepresented in the prison population as compared to the state- wide population. This is also true of people who are functionally illiterate and unable to obtain or keep meaningful employment because they lack an education beyond the 6th grade.
Like much of the Untied States our prisons have become a holding pen for people whom society does not value: people of color, those lacking an education and the mentally ill. To lock these people away and keep them out of sight the state spends an average of $54,931 per inmate per year. Funding better schools and remedial programs; providing community-based mental health services; and, amending laws and policing practices so that people of color are not disproportionately arrested and more harshly sentenced than whites are all significantly less expensive than locking them away in prison.
In an article in the Stanford Law Review, titled “The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration in African American Communities,” Dorothy Roberts highlights several ways that these communities are impacted. These include damage to social networks, distortion of social norms and the destruction of social citizenship. As an example she highlights that people convicted of crimes, including “first offenders are subject to the collateral denial of a host of citizenship rights, privileges and benefits.” These include felony disenfranchisement, labor market exclusion and civic isolation. In addition to this collateral damage to the community and a loss of assets, these also contribute to recidivism by alienating former offenders from the civic life of their communities and the larger society.
As Michelle Alexander poignantly writes in the introduction to her book The New Jim Crow: “like Jim Crow (and Slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.”
This system, which she labels “the new Jim Crow,” ensures a steady flow into our prisons while African-American families and communities continue to pay an increasingly higher price.
Irwin Nesoff is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Leadership and Policy at Wheelock College. Prior to joining the faculty at Wheelock, he was a member of the social work faculty at Kean University in Union, New Jersey for 13 years. He received his Masters of Social Work degree from the Hunter College School of Social Work and his Doctorate in Social Welfare from the City University of New York Graduate Center. He has also taught in the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service of NYU, and earned a certificate in nonprofit management from Columbia University.
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