This country’s cradle-to-prison pipeline needed bypass surgery even before the George Floyd violence videos.

Edward Brown III

Our Greater Hartford Youth Leadership Academy has been studying the pipeline as a negative fact of life for people of color in this period of mass incarceration in the United States. Recognizing that our country suffers from many diseases due to racial inequalities, we had begun to conclude that, like a damaged heart, this pipe needs a bypass. Understanding how American inequality is imposed – through a criminal justice system that works to keep Black and brown people down – is the first step toward addressing a life-or-death matter for young people of color.

Society and its justice system, which Georgetown Law Center Professor Paul Butler discusses in his book, Chokehold, foment destructive patterns of youth development. Many urban schools are dysfunctional, and the prisons reflect a punishment system that does not take appropriate steps to correctly treat people and their problems. As the Economic Policy Institute reported in 2018, our society since 1968 has failed to address historic inequities related to health, housing, employment, income, and educational opportunity – all of which begin at child birth and persist throughout the lives of people of color.

Much is at stake if our society fails to address the inequities young children face:

  • Risky futures emanating from unequal education.
  • Negative life trajectories following unaddressed exposure to violence, replayed across generations.
  • Difficult head starts related to inadequate health, prenatal, and preventive care for the pregnant mother and baby.
  • Slippery slopes of poverty as it exacts conditions of homelessness and chronic school absence.
  • Under-education, as reflected by the academic achievement gap in reading and math proficiency.
  • Dropping out or getting kicked out of school, sometimes due to unfair disciplinary practices; and
  • Sending youth from suspension into the system. The pattern often begins when students who leave school find negative alternatives to make a living; out-of-school teens are more likely to get in trouble and end up in prison. This is the reality.

Once in the system

One unfortunate pattern within the Black community, which leads young people to prison, is that youth challenged to make a living and who have no healthy alternatives to jail, as a last resort turn to selling drugs. That choice is not easily reversible.

Once in the system and after serving time, what obstacles do returning inmates face when they attempt to go back to work or get a decent place to stay? They have criminal records, so they feel there are no second chances. If they can make money in ways that are easy for them, with no one telling them what to do, it temporarily solves their problems.

Another negative condition leading to prison is exposure to violence. “Black men living in high-poverty neighborhoods are particularly at risk for violence – as harm doers and as victims, from the police and from each other,” Paul Butler reminds us.

A disproportionately high number of black men and boys (as well as poor kids) are being sent to prison, heavily drawn from – and therefore weakening – African American and Latino communities.  Prison now stands firmly between the young people trying to make it, and their fulfillment of the “American Dream.” Yet we are not just sending poor kids to prison: we’re saddling poor kids with court, probation and parole restrictions and low-level warrants, which involve court costs that can result in further jail time.

We are asking them to live in halfway houses, on house arrest, and we’re asking them to negotiate a police force entering poor communities of color, not always for the stated purpose of promoting public safety but also to make arrest counts. For many youth of color, time spent in prison is wasted, because rehabilitation and training behind bars is rare or non-existent.  Society returns too many back to where they “belong,” merely to continue the same habits.

Successful returns home should be the goal of the system, to make sure convicts are provided sustained support once they come back into their communities, but the scope of the system’s re-entry skill building programs is very small. “Mercy more becomes a magistrate than that vindictive wrath men call justice,” Longfellow advised.

Recovery programs like Homeboy Industries in South Central Los Angeles give convicted criminals an understanding of why and how they can change.  At a deeper level, prison scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues for the complete abolition of prisons, calling for the replacement of random punishment with focused treatment, which will assess and find the problems, to better help gain solutions for these prisoners to have better lives and be treated fairly.  Rather than taking a “zero tolerance” approach, she reasons, society should take on problems before they escalate into mass incarceration, with all its negative impacts on families of color.

The point is, without solutions to intervene or help convicts with their problems during the time they are locked up, prisons only cage and treat them like animals.  If incarceration is only going to send convicts home without readiness for positive change, it is a waste of time and resources.  In human terms, for criminals, their families, and their children (especially if the cycle continues across generations), mass incarceration exacts an enormous cost on family stability. But it also costs about $40,000 per year to send a young person to prison in New Jersey, a typical example.

Poor people from communities of color live in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, have the least family resources, attend the country’s worst schools, face the toughest time in the labor market, and live in neighborhoods where violence is an everyday problem.

Why are we spending so much money on prisoners when these funds could be used for prevention in their communities? Why not be proactive by supporting children’s needs or funding organizations that currently don’t have the resources or professionals to provide the wraparound services that research endorses?

In economic terms, to operate prisons, to cover inmates’ and families’ public assistance and health costs, and to forego the lifetime tax revenues when the number of productive work years is decreased, society’s practice of mass incarceration is more an enemy of economic opportunity than a booster.

For inmates, the burdens upon re-entry are also related to cost: the cost of living. Prisoners do not establish credit during time served, and this reduces access to credit, in turn, leading to substantial increases in recidivism. By re-allocating money from reactionary corrections programs to proactive and preventive community services, cities could begin to effectively invest in the communities and people previously neglected and criminalized.

The Prison Policy Report calculates that 27% of formerly incarcerated people are looking for a job but can’t find one, pointing out that, “For formerly incarcerated people looking for jobs, it’s worse than the Great Depression.”  As Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf point out, “Formerly incarcerated people want to work; their high unemployment rate reflects public will, policy, and practice – not differences in aspirations.”

At this point, poor people from communities of color live in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, have the least family resources, attend the country’s worst schools, face the toughest time in the labor market, and live in neighborhoods where violence is an everyday problem. We are asking at-risk families to walk the thinnest possible line – to basically never do anything wrong.

Now what?

Can we imagine something better? Can we imagine a criminal justice system that opens different doors to people of color than this fugitive existence? Can we imagine a system made more fair through unified efforts to prioritize prevention, civic inclusion, recovery, and mentorship, rather than punishment?

Communities need to design, support and deliver services that address the full spectrum of challenges faced by people re-entering the community or who are at risk of violence, particularly with the immediate crisis response and ongoing trauma-informed counseling so crucial to their ability to make positive life choices in the future.

In the best of all possible worlds, our society would rethink and redesign prisons, and move toward abolishing them.  This makes particularly good sense, as Paul Butler maintains, because the overwhelming majority of inmates – some 80 percent – require effective mental health and/or addiction treatment if rehabilitation is truly the goal.

Especially knowing what we have learned from COVID-19 – that a crisis ignored becomes a worse catastrophe – further lip-service deferring the American Dream for people of color merely reinforces the view that our democracy amounts to hypocrisy.

Even before the pandemic and racial injustice outbreaks of 2020, American society needed emergency bypass surgery on our clogged cradle-to-prison artery, followed by the sustainment of models proven to prevent criminal behavior … not poverty- and race-based approaches that only grow and warehouse it.

As the late Rep. John Lewis reminded us, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act.  It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take.”

Put differently, we are past the point of bypass surgery now; our democracy needs a heart transplant.

Edward Brown III is Program Director of Hartford Communities That Care, Inc.

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