When Prison Is the Safety Net
Incarceration in the United States and the Commonwealth
by Anise Vance
This is the seventh in a series of pieces on opportunity, income inequality, and economic mobility. Complementing The Boston Foundation’s Opportunity Forums, and its year-long effort to highlight income inequality, this series will touch on a wide variety of research and topics pertaining to economic mobility. For more on the Opportunity Forums, please visit: www.tbf.org/opportunity.
In 1970, as an era of groundbreaking social upheaval came to a close, the American government incarcerated approximately 100 out of every 100,000 U.S. residents. Marked by continual racial violence and punctuated by the assassinations of national leaders, the civil rights era offered Americans a tantalizing, but ultimately unfulfilled, promise: an equitable society in which social, educational, and economic opportunities were universally guaranteed rights. Few societal realms offer greater evidence of that promise’s failure than the United States’ prison system.
By 1990, over 300 out of every 100,000 U.S. residents were imprisoned. By 2010, that figure rose to approximately 700, representing a sevenfold increase from 1970. Tough-on-crime policies that sent thousands to prison were the uniquely American antidote to what was an international rise in crime rates: Canada, Sweden, and Denmark are only a few of the nations that saw crime rise during the latter half of the 20th century. No nation, however, so systematically, consistently, and pervasively deployed imprisonment as a solution to crime.
More troubling than the overzealous focus on incarceration is that the “solution” was divorced from the problem some twenty years ago. Through the last decade of the 20th century and into the 21st century, incarceration rates grew independently of crime rates. The fear-based rationale behind harsh penalties and prison sentences were short-sighted prior to 1990; afterward, they were, by any comparison or measure, unprecedented.
The truly startling rate at which Americans are currently imprisoned is perhaps best understood through comparisons between nations. The United States’ incarceration rate is the highest in the world — and by a significant margin. Unabashed autocracies, failed states embroiled in internal conflict, and nations routinely accused of corruption and political suppression all imprison a smaller share of their population than does the United States. Needless to say, the gap between the incarceration rates of the US and liberal democracies akin to the United States’ is enormous:
“Presently, America’s incarceration rate (which accounts for people in prisons and jails) is roughly 12 times the rate in Sweden, eight times the rate in Italy, seven times the rate in Canada, five times the rate in Australia, and four times the rate in Poland. America’s closest to-scale competitor is Russia — and with an autocratic Vladimir Putin locking up about 450 people per 100,000, compared with our 700 or so, it isn’t much of a competition.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration
Still more disturbing than the overall rate of incarceration in the United States is the demographic makeup of those incarcerated. In 2010, 4,347 of every 100,000 black men were imprisoned. The corresponding rate for Hispanic men was 1,775. White men were imprisoned at a comparatively low rate of 678 per 100,000. While each of those figures represents an approximate threefold increase over demographic-specific incarceration rates in 1960, the obvious racial imbalance cannot be ignored: black and Hispanic men were 6 and 3 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. The same racial trend holds true across gender. Black and Hispanic women were almost 3 and 1.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white women.
The economic distribution of those imprisoned is also imbalanced. According to the most recent and comprehensive data on inmates’ earnings prior to their incarceration, there exists a 52% difference between the median annual incomes of incarcerated men prior to incarceration and the median annual incomes of men who were not incarcerated. For women, that difference is 42%. While 57% of incarcerated men had annual incomes less than $22,500 prior to incarceration, 57% of non-incarcerated men earned over $37,500. A staggering 72% of incarcerated women earned less than $22,500 prior to their imprisonment; only 48% of non-incarcerated women earned that little.
The data paints a vivid and unmistakable picture: the United States’ overall incarceration rate — by far the highest in the world — has had its greatest impact on the lives of those in society’s most marginalized and economically disadvantaged communities.
The number of black, brown, and poor men incarcerated is so overwhelmingly large that prisons have become the nation’s primary social services providers. Prisons are the largest mental health providers in Illinois, Ohio, New York, and, yes, in the United States generally; more government money is spent per capita on inmates than on school children; and, perhaps most ironically, prisons house approximately 2.2 million people — the same number of Americans that call traditional public housing home. In practice, dollars spent, and sometimes both, prisons have become the hospitals, schools, and public housing system for America’s poor, black, and brown populations.
Massachusetts’ incarceration rate is significantly lower than that of the country as a whole. In fact, with an incarceration rate of 400 residents per every 100,000, the Commonwealth has the third lowest rate among the states. That relative achievement should, however, be couched in a broader context. Were Massachusetts an independent nation, it’s incarceration rate would rank among the twenty highest in the world. Iran (290 per 100,000), Venezuela (178 per 100,000), and Saudi Arabia (161 per 100,000) imprison a smaller percentage of their populations than does Massachusetts.
When broken down by race and ethnicity, Massachusetts is strikingly and depressingly similar to the rest of the nation. While more white people are imprisoned than any other racial group, the white population has a rate of incarceration of only 91 people per 100,000. Massachusetts’ black and Hispanic population have, respectively, incarceration rates of 641 and 377 per 100,000.
Considering that men accounted for 10,227 of Massachusetts’ 11,034 incarcerated persons in January 2014, a further inference can be made. Assuming that a quarter of the 807 female inmates were black (a slight overestimation based on the overall imprisoned population’s racial shares), the number of black males imprisoned stands at 2,794. The incarceration rate of black men is, then, 1,213 per 100,000. While that figure cannot be verified with current data, the assumption made in achieving it does, in fact, underestimate the number of black men imprisoned: black women likely account for less than a third of imprisoned women. Even if they accounted for half of the total number of imprisoned women, the incarceration rate of black men would still be 1,154 per 100,000. A similar calculation, estimating that Hispanic women account for a quarter of the total imprisoned female population, reveals that Hispanic men likely suffer from an incarceration rate of 707 per 100,000.
The effects of imprisonment on those many individuals who make up abnormally high incarceration rates is obvious. Scholars have documented former prisoners’ difficulty finding employment; their trouble re-learning the social norms of non-prison environments; the haunting psychological trauma caused by inhumane and violent prison environments; and the familial and close relationships that are damaged by long sentences. Critically, these challenges do not exist independent of one another. An inability to find employment could, quite easily, lead to homelessness which, in turn, might trigger traumatic memories. Alternately, uncared for psychological trauma may lead to the loss of employment thereby throwing former prisoners into a cycle of almost insurmountable struggles.
The effects of imprisonment on entire communities are equally tragic. Entire generations of black, brown, and poor men were, and are, raised with the constant threat of prison sentences and, in some geographies, a likelihood of incarceration that verges on inevitability. Black and brown families, once cornerstones of neighborhoods, were, and are, routinely torn asunder by the severe consequences of prison time. Family incomes drop by 22% during the years a father is incarcerated and, after a father is released, his family still earns 15% less than it did before his imprisonment. Lower family incomes are associated with numerous and varied challenges, the most ironic of which is an increased likelihood that those 12 years and older will themselves be victims of crime. Clearly, inequality, whether economically, educationally, or in terms of civic involvement, between blacks and Hispanics on the one hand and whites on the other, was, and is, severely stunted by the social and financial instability incarceration causes.
While Massachusetts’ low incarceration rate in comparison to its fellow states must be acknowledged, and lauded, the reality of the Commonwealth’s prisons must also be emphasized with greater force. The Commonwealth is not immune to the criminalization of black bodies that is integral to this nation’s bitter racial history, the strict and harsh sentencing guidelines that have locked away disproportionately high numbers of poor Americans, or the blindness of a judicial system that, by institutional policy, treats some far differently than others. Relative to the rest of the world, Massachusetts still imprisons an extraordinarily high percentage of its residents. The state’s black and brown populations — and particularly its black and brown men — are incarcerated at rates so astronomical they appear to be cynical fantasy. Ultimately, Massachusetts’, and the United States’, incarceration rates point to gravely inequitable systems, unjust structures, and geographic imbalances of opportunity so deeply unfair they test belief.