Friday, February 29, 2008

The Other Side of Prison

Have we become the Loc Em Up States of America? According to a recent study released by the Pew Center on the States, one in every 100 adults is in jail or prison, making America the world’s No. 1 incarcerator.

The report says 2,319,258 Americans were in jail or prison at the start of 2008. Locking people up comes with a cost. The 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison cost was six times greater than for higher education spending.

No one should be shocked that the incarceration numbers are worse for people of color. While one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males in that age group the figure is one in nine. One in every 355 white women aged 35 to 39 is behind bars, compared with nine of every 100 black women in that same age group.

What is causing this rapid increase? Is this what Bill Clinton had in mind when he pressed the “three-strikes” law that resulted in longer prison stays? With all the talk about getting tough on crime, have we become so consumed with getting the bad guys off the streets that we have created a monster that is controlling us more than we are managing its actions?

It would be easy to blame all of this on something in the air that is making criminals out of Americans. How else can we explain having more people in prison than China, despite their massive population? Sure, go ahead and say it’s the fault of Hip-Hop culture, violence in the media and the evil usage of the N-word. What is it that is driving our nation to violence?

I’m one that believes every reaction is instigated by an action. Otherwise, we’d have to conclude there is something floating in American water that is contaminating the souls of those in the good ole USA. I refuse to accept that the culture of America preconditions people to embrace the life of crime. I reject the notion that we, by virtue of influences within popular culture, have promoted the hard life as a legitimate expression of life in America.

No, it’s not the water, and it’s not our evil music and other cultural variants that have caused this crisis. Rather, it is a series of public policy decisions that have advanced a greater divide between those with the resources and those without. The life of crime, for many, has become more than a chose they make. Sadly, due to the impact of public policy decisions, too many of those behind bars are there because, in their mind, they had no other option.

Many of my readers are prepared to throw stones at me after that line of reasoning. If you don’t believe me, talk to a person weeks after being released from prison. Talk to them about the challenges they face after being released. That felon label sticks with them. America, when it comes to those who have been behind bars, isn’t a forgiving nation. This is especially true when drugs are involved.

A close friend of mine has a son who was released from prison last week. After six long years of serving time for selling drugs, he is back in the real world hoping to pull his life together. Before going to prison, he completed two years of college. Academics were never a problem. Like many who end up in prison, he now has to contend with the variety of assumptions made about those who have served time.

It doesn’t help that he is a black man. He has gone on interviews over the past week. He has a list of certifications to prove his worth: heating and air conditioning and electrician. He has not wasted time while in prison. He wants to go back to college to complete that degree. In the meantime, he just wants a job. Any job to help begin his new life after serving time.

He has the support of a loving family. His mother and sister are in his corner. His brother is there to help keep him on the straight and narrow. Grandmother provides her witty wisdom. This is not a story of a bad dude from an out of control family. Rather, this is a good man who made a mistake, wishes he could change it all and prove his worth to those he has let down.

The excitement he feels is fragile. When on interviews he has noticed a few things. People aren’t concerned when he tells the truth about his criminal record. They’ll say, “You served time? No problem. That is until he says it was drug related. Then they deflate the part of him that has prayed for this day to come. He fights back the rage related to watching those who did worse crimes find work because drugs are not on their rap sheet. The double standard caused by those polices we create make it hard for those who get out to stay out.

How many of those locked up have been there before? Why are they back again? Could it be because we are more enamored with keeping them away from us than we are in helping them, the best we can, to stay out of trouble?

Something is wrong with America. It’s not the water and it’s not because we are preconditioned to be criminals. Our policies are harming the progress of far too many. Each of us can help. This is the first step. Anyone have a job for a young man who is trying to do the right thing? If so, call me at (919) 321-1379. If you know someone else looking for work, call me.

The Rev-elution is committed to making a difference. It takes each of us working together. Hollla at your boy!


  1. Thanks Carl. Your blog really touched on my son’s dilemma.

    His energy and spirit is definitely charged and he is set on finding employment. I am praying that he remain strong and not fall victim to rejection. He served 6 years for three misdemeanors which resulted in a felony. In his quest for a job he is beginning to believe it is easier for a murderer or a sex offender to get employment. My son have definitely made mistakes, however he would like to leave the past behind and move on with his life.

    There are so many barriers but he has everything to gain through a positive attitude, hard work, drive, and persistence. The odds are definitely against him but I pray he will succeed. Life is sometimes unfair, but hopefully he will take the initiative to succeed. Keep a positive attitude and be proactive. Keep focused on acquiring more education and training.

    I appreciate your friendship and encouragement through the years.

  2. Carl - excellent and timely post. We have educational and criminal justice systems in this country that objectively don't work very well. Check out some additional stats from this article:

    * According to the report, the average annual cost per prisoner was $23,876, with Rhode Island spending the most ($44,860) and Louisiana the least ($13,009).

    * The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation, far ahead of more populous China with 1.5 million people behind bars.

    * The U.S. also is the leader in inmates per capita (750 per 100,000 people), ahead of Russia (628 per 100,000) and other former Soviet bloc nations which round out the Top 10.

    At the macro level, the problem is stunning. At the micro level, the problem of inmates re-entering society is huge. When we lock up one percent of the population, and 10% of black men between 20 and 34, that same population has a tough time re-entering society.

    We've GOT to do better -- just look at the numbers! Does it make sense to pay $24,000 per year to incarcerate someone? That's a scholarship to a nice private school -- what's wrong with this picture?

    Paying $24,000 per year room and board to lock up nonviolent criminals doesn't make a lot of sense. There must be a better way.

    In terms of prevention, why can't we provide vouchers for education so that all students can attend public, private, or charter/technical schools of their choice?

    What would our world be like if we had 516 students per year in Durham County graduating from schools like Durham Nativity School, instead of dropping out?

    In terms of punishment, why are we so focused on locking up nonviolent offenders? Can't we identify more economical educational and service opportunities so that nonviolent offenders are allowed to build marketable skills while helping other people?

    Carl, I know your friend's son will find the right opportunity. I'd also encourage him to look for ways to create his own value in the community. Maybe he's not ready to start his own business again, but hey, he did it once before. Ultimately, the only thing better than getting a job is creating a job!

    BJ Lawson

    Candidate for Congress,
    North Carolina's 4th District

  3. The other side of Prision

    I don't have any criminal records,
    I have a college degree and it is tough for me to find decent employment. I can imagine someone who has a dent in their history. It is tough to make it and live at least a little with the rising cost of living and raising a family. I can understand a man or woman who is driven to such circumstance but we cannot make that an excuse for all that is taking place in America. Parents take responsibility for your children most of this lies at your door. I commend the parents who are helping the youth and young men right their wrongs but taking responsibility for the choices we make are long over due. Only then will true and lasting change occur. Stop blaming and start confessing. To those trying really hard keep overcoming and the victory will be yours eventually. Don't give up so soon. I am cheering for all those at least trying vs those who who are robbing, committing senseless murders and all kinds of evil. The truth of the matter is that people's hearts are full of evil. Lack of a job wasn't the motive for the on college murders or the tons of others. What is the sense in all of this the world is becoming more vile and its unfortunate that some get stuck in the middle, but there is always a way out. Be willing to take the way out. Education, improving your skills.... if they won't employ you employ yourself.I could go on and on and there are countless of people who do it on a daily basis what's their excuse if they wanted to see change they knew they had to be the change they wanted to see in their lives.

  4. Carl,

    Beautifully written. I wrote about the travesty of our current penal system last year, which I link to not to hype my own blog (okay, maybe just a little), but because I've got some stuff in there on the Million Dollar Blocks study from Brooklyn.

    Our prison system makes me furious, but it's one area where I'm at a loss for what to do. If you start getting some big ideas about what we can do working together, let me know!