The impact of high Black male incarceration rates
By Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell
Needless to say, with America?s criminal justice system primed to incarcerate Black men, in particular, the impact of the mandatory sentencing and strict drug laws is being felt heavily in Black communities from coast to coast.
Each year, when 650,000 ex-prisoners return to communities all across the United States, many suffer from deteriorating health conditions and must confront a hostile environment where their rehabilitation will be difficult to achieve.
What’s more, the families and communities they are rejoining may have changed significantly during their absence—creating a totally new dynamic for these ex-prisoners to overcome at a time when their circumstances already make them vulnerable.
When America embarked on its aggressive campaign to “get tough on crime” by swelling the nation’s prison ranks, it’s now clear that not enough emphasis was put on creating healthy prison environments or considering the impact that incarcerating so many people would have on the families and communities that they left behind.
Needless to say, with America’s criminal justice system primed to incarcerate Black men, in particular, the impact of the mandatory sentencing and strict drug laws is being felt heavily in Black communities from coast to coast. Of the 2.1 million people incarcerated in jails and prisons in 2005, 548,300 were Black males between the ages of 20 and 39. Put another way, 4.7 percent of all Black males in the United States were incarcerated, compared to 0.7 of the White males.
The original “war on crime” back into the late 1960s centered on providing social programs to address poverty, which was widely seen as an incubator for crime. Many programs were developed that emphasized rehabilitating offenders. Twenty years later, however, the new mandate to the criminal justice system was “do something about drugs,” and that translated into the biggest increase ever in the nation’s prison population. Instead of training people for jobs, government money was spent on building more prisons.
Arrests for drug violations skyrocketed from 661,000 in 1983 to 1,126,300 in 1993. From 1980 to 1993, the percentage of White inmates rose 163 percent, while the percentage of Black inmates increased by 217 percent. And by the end of 1993, half of all federal and state prisoners were Blacks.
In Fact, the levels of incarceration for Black Males has often been referred to as America\'s new slavery. Many have gone so far as to note studies that found the Safest Place for a Black Male is in Prison!
Perhaps the biggest victims of this policy were children—the sons and daughters of the prisoners. By 1999, there were 721,500 parents in federal and state prisons, and they were parents to1.5 million children. The social impact of so many children with parents in prison is devastating, especially in low-income communities. It fosters an environment where children don’t have role models and may fall into the same bad habits of their parents. We also must consider the psychological impact. While the father is incarcerated, children and families not only lose the financial and emotional support of the missing parent, but must deal with the stigma of having a family member in prison.
Moreover, the community receives another jolt—when the prisoner comes home. Prisons have become a nest for many infectious and chronic diseases ranging from HIV/AIDS to hepatitis to tuberculosis. In fact, the rate of confirmed AIDS cases in prisons runs five times higher than the general population. Inmates are ineligible for Medicaid when they are incarcerated, so their healthcare services are limited. When Medicaid benefits, as well as other benefits, are lost upon incarceration, there is often a lengthy lag time for reinstatement when a prisoner is released.
Generally, there are no federal or state requirements to ensure that benefits are available upon release from prison, a situation that increases homelessness and blocks access to needed health care. Unfortunately, because of lapses in record keeping neither federal nor state agencies know how many former prisoners permanently lose benefits. The federal government requires the suspension of benefits while someone is in prison, but allows a flawed process to exist for restoring those benefits. Thus, when inmates return home, they are usually in poor health—mentally and physically. Their poor health is another burden for their families, many of which don’t have health insurance; meanwhile, their community has to deal with the spread of diseases.
Clearly, the negative results from increasing the prison population has taken away any benefit that political leaders sought by supposedly taking criminals off the streets.
If America sticks with this misguided policy, there has to be significant changes made to better ensure that real rehabilitation takes place in prisons, that inmates have access to quality healthcare and that more support is available to help inmates on their reentry into their families, as well as their communities. Let’s correct bad public policy.
We have seen the impact of what more prison walls have brought us; now it’s time to invest in the health and well-being of people.
(Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell, associate director of Development at the National Center for Primary Care at Morehouse School of Medicine, is also director of Community Voices, a non-profit working to improve health services, and healthcare access, for all Americans.)
Black incarceration rates tripled during Clinton era
WASHINGTON—Former President Bill Clinton left a legacy in the prison system during his eight years in office that was more punitive than both of his Republican predecessors Ronald Reagan and George Bush combined, according to a new report from the Justice Policy Institute (JPI).
Furthermore, in the last two decades the rate of Black incarceration more than tripled, rising from 1,156 Blacks in jail per 100,000 Black citizens in 1980 when Mr. Reagan took office, to more than 3,620 per 100,000 Blacks in 1999, near the end of Mr. Clinton’s term, according to JPI’s report, “Too Little, Too Late: Clinton’s Prison Legacy.”
After more than a decade in which the Black incarceration rate increased by an average of 138.4 per 100,000 per year, more than doubling the number of Blacks in federal custody between 1980 and 1992, the Black incarceration rate continued to increase by an average of 100.4 per 100,000 during the Clinton era, according to the report.
“President Clinton stole the show from the ‘tough on crime’ Republicans,” said Vincent Schiraldi, JPI president on Feb. 19 when his group released its study to reporters. Mr. Clinton was “right to call for criminal justice reform in a recent Rolling Stone interview,” Mr. Schiraldi continued, referring to an end-of-his-term interview with the magazine. “He was wrong to do so little about it while he was in office.”
Mr. Clinton’s controversial end-of-term pardons—including a major drug “kingpin”—illustrate the inconsistency between Mr. Clinton’s rhetoric and his actions, according to one of the report’s authors. The Justice Policy Foundation launched a campaign to win pardons or clemency for 1,000 non-violent drug offenders on whom they had detailed research and information supporting their appeals, according to Jason Ziedenberg, co-author of the JPI report. Only 17 persons on that list were among the more than 400 last-minute pardons issued by Mr. Clinton.
More than 673,000 inmates were added to the state and federal prisons during the Clinton presidency, and the federal incarceration rate doubled from its level at the end of Mr. Reagan’s term, and rose more than 61 percent above the rate at the end of Mr. Bush’s term, the group found.
There were 17 prisoners per 100,000 citizens in 1988 when Mr. Reagan left office. There were 42 per 100,000 at the end of 1999.
In addition, the total number of prisoners under federal jurisdiction increased from 80,259 to 147,126, during Mr. Clinton’s watch, increasing more than it did under the previous 12 years of Republican rule combined.
The report recommends that President George W. Bush make good on his campaign promise of “making sure the powder-cocaine and crack-cocaine penalties are the same,” by abolishing federal crack vs. powder sentencing disparities during this legislative session. Mr. Ziedenberg also complained that Mr. Clinton vetoed legislation which would have equalized those guidelines, after a study panel recommended those changes.
The report also cites the efforts by the Republican governors of both New York and New Mexico to ease the so-called “WAR ON DRUGS” in favor of increased drug treatment, and it calls on President Bush to support state efforts to divert non-violent offenders from prison into treatment, by fulfilling his campaign promise to provide an additional $1 billion for treatment programs.
“When (Mr.) Clinton came into office, he had a 10-year incarceration boom to outshine,” stated report co-author Lisa Feldman. “As the (former) governor with the nation’s largest prison population and the most executions, President Bush has no need to prove his conservative mettle. He has shown he can be tough on crime—now he has the opportunity to prove he can be smart on crime as well.”