Reverse Reparations: Race, Place, and the Vicious Circle of Mass Incarceration*
Reverse Reparations: Race, Place, and the Vicious Circle of Mass Incarceration*
â€œTOWNS PUT DREAMS IN PRISONSâ€
Sometimes it's the silences that speak the loudest. Consider, for example, a page-one article that appeared in the New York Times in the summer of 2001 under the title "Rural Towns Turn to Prisons to Re-ignite Their Economies." According to this piece, non-metropolitan
By Kilbornâ€™s account, â€œprisons have been helping to revive large stretches of rural
A different story on the same topic appeared under the title "Ionia Finds Stability in Prisons" in the Detroit News just 12 days before Kilbornâ€™s piece. It told the enlightening tale of how the semi-rural Michigan town of Ionia, located halfway between Lansing and Grand Rapids, had recently become one of the state's fastest growing and "most improved" communities thanks its five thriving penitentiaries together employing 1,584 workers who collectively made $102 million a year. "The state's urban centers dump their felons," the Detroit News reported, "in prison towns and forget about them. Suburbs balk at housing felons, envisioning escapees trampling through their gardens and hiding out in their tool sheds." But "
A February 2001 Chicago Tribune article titled â€œTowns Put Dreams in Prisonsâ€ told a comparable story from
Before â€œBig Muddyâ€ went up, the Tribune noted, Ina â€œtook in just $17,000 a year in motor fuel tax revenue. Now the figure is more like $72,000. Last yearâ€™s municipal budget appropriation was $380,000. More than half of that money is prison revenue. Streets that were paved in chipped gravel and oil for generations soon will all be covered in asphalt. An $850,000 community center that doubles as a gym and computer lab for the school across the street is being paid for with prison money.â€
Because much state and federal tax revenue is allocated on a per capita basis, the Tribune noted, â€œa prison population that puts no strains on village services is a permanent windfall for a little town such as Ina.â€ â€œIt really figures out this way,â€ Inaâ€™s mayor Andy Hutchens told the Tribune: â€œthis little town of 450 people is getting the tax money of a town of 2,700.â€ â€œAnd those people in that prison,â€ Hutchens added, â€œcanâ€™t vote me out of officeâ€ (3).
The extent of some â€œdownstateâ€ Illinois communitiesâ€™ sense of dependence on the prison â€œwindfallâ€ was clear in a Tribune article that appeared nearly a year later when then-Illinois Governor George Ryan announced the impending closure of the stateâ€™s rural Vienna Correctional Center. A page-one Tribune story on resulting local union protests, noted that â€œat a time when other industry in Illinoisâ€™ southern end is weak, Vienna and other prisons dotting the farm fields are considered a force as much for economic development as for public safety.â€ As coal mines closed during the 1970s, the paper observed, displaced southern
â€œWhen their children graduated from high school, parents encouraged them to start a career in what appeared to be a dependable industry. â€˜That was the only thing going on when I was coming up, that and the mines and the rock quarries,â€™ said Larry Flynn, who went to work at
â€œOver time,â€ the Tribune added, â€œthe local economy has grown up around the prison like a vineâ€ (4).
Each of these newspaper articles did an excellent job telling an important story about a striking and relevant contemporary issue. In a nation founded largely on agrarian-republican ideals, prisoners now outnumber farmers. Filled primarily by inmates of urban origin, most of the
But each article also made three critical omissions for those who wish to understand the meaning and impact of the rise of a giant rural American prison industrial complex fed by primarily urban, human â€œraw material.â€ The first thing missing was any appropriate sense of horror at a society in which local officials sell the nightmare of mass human confinement as a ticket to the American Dream. As Huling observes, â€œhundreds of small rural towns and several whole regions have become dependent on an industry that itself is dependent on the continuation of crime-producing conditionsâ€ [emphasis added] in other parts of the nation (6).
What are we supposed to make, morally, of a situation in which crime and imprisonment for some are seen as sources of economic â€œsecurityâ€ for others? When prisons become â€œa force as much for economic development as for public safety,â€ citizens in a democracy worth its name should shudder with horror. Such a state of affairs raises (or ought to raise) sharp moral questions regarding the dominant
The Urban Kept of Color
The second thing missing was the stark racial dimension of the new rural prisonomics. By the time each of the articles appeared, the most striking aspect of Americaâ€™s correctional boom beyond its sheer magnitude â€“ the U.S. emerged as the worldâ€™s leading incarceration state during the 1990s â€“ was its heavily racialized nature. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of black men in jail or prison grew fivefold (500 percent), to the point where, as the Justice Policy Institute reported in 2002, there were actually more black men behind bars than enrolled in colleges or universities in the United States. On any given day, United States Bureau of Justice Statistics director Jan Chaiken reported in 2000, 30 percent of African-American males ages 20 to 29 were under correctional supervision â€“ either in jail or prison or on probation or parole. The nationâ€™s disproportionately urban black populace comprised 12.3 percent of the
In 15 percent black
The Caucasian Country Keepers
The color of the â€œdownstateâ€ keepers was a different matter. Eighteen of the twenty adult correctional facilities constructed between 1980 and 2000 in
Visitors to outwardly white
Things are much the same in other states where the nationâ€™s disproportionately urban black population supplies most of the raw material for the â€œcorrectionalâ€ industry. In
â€œPrisoners of the Censusâ€
Thanks to the savagely racialized nature of
One such jurisdiction is
â€œA Massive Transfer of Valueâ€
If prisons filled by disproportionately black â€œurban felonsâ€ have become a critical source of â€œeconomic developmentâ€ in disproportionately white rural
Generally quite poor, prisoners deflate the income profiles of downstate communities, making prison towns eligible for extra poverty-directed public dollars. The prisoners do not benefit, however, from the rural roads, schools, and bridges built with public funds tied to prison development. At the same time, prisoners put relatively minimal strain on local infrastructure beyond occasional trips to court and the use of prison shower and toilet facilities.
They do not benefit from the enhanced political power that prisons bring to rural jurisdictions. Politically disenfranchised prisoners (inmates can vote in only two
Altogether, it makes for a disturbing picture, full of unsettling parallels and living links to chattel slavery. Under the modern mass imprisonment regime in the â€œland of the free,â€ millions of young black men are involuntarily removed from their home urban environments to serve as voiceless economic, budgetary, and political assets in distant rural destinations where they are kept under lock and key by white-majority overseers. It is difficult to imagine a more pathetic denouement to
The third thing missing from the newspaper accounts quoted at the beginning of this chapter is the terrible effect of racially disparate mass incarceration on the labor market experience and related economic and life chances of the disproportionately black inmates who provide critical raw material for
Mass Incarceration as Racially Regressive State Intervention
According to a recent social-scientific survey of more than 3,000 employers nationwide, more than 60 percent of employers would not knowingly hire an ex-offender. By comparison, 92 percent of those employers would likely hire a current or former welfare recipient and 83 percent would hire someone who had been unemployed for a year (19). Reflecting this employer bias and a host of related barriers, the best social science research finds that incarceration carries a 10 to 20 percent â€œwage penalty.â€ Ex-prisoners on average experience no real wage increases in their twenties and thirties, when young men who have never been incarcerated tend to experience rapid wage-growth. Prison time serves to channel individuals away from skilled occupations and into job sectors characterized by low wages, limited job stability, and fewer opportunities for advancement. It significantly disrupts the career-building process as ex-offenders are left to start back at square one with respect to gaining a foothold in a particular occupation.
Incarceration particularly closes off employment avenues for ex-offenders in the public sector, where employers are now extremely concerned about the criminal records of applicants and where black employment is disproportionately concentrated. â€œThe effect of prior incarceration on the likelihood of securing government employment,â€ sociologist Devah Pager notes, â€œis dramatic,â€ corresponding to a 61 percent reduction in the odds of holding a government job after a stay in prison (20).
Since incarceration rates are especially high among those with the least power in the labor market â€“ young and unskilled minority, particularly African-American, men â€“
Thanks to its racially disparate labor market and related (under-) developmental consequences, the prison industrial complex has become a significant form of racially regressive and highly regulatory state intervention in the
â€œAlthough typically the preserve of criminology, incarceration appears to shape aspects of inequality that are of traditional interest to stratification researchers. It seems likely that status attainment, school-to-work transitions, and family structure are all influenced, perhaps even routinely, by the penal system in the current period of high incarceration. From this perspective, the usual list of institutional influences on social stratification â€“ schools, the families, and social policy â€“ should be expanded to consider the coercive redistribution of life chances through incarcerationâ€ (21).
Even without criminal marking and prison backgrounds, of course, African-Americans are disproportionately and often deeply disadvantaged in competitive job markets by low skills, poor schools, fragile family structures, racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, and geographic isolation from the leading sectors of job growth. When felony records and prison histories are thrown into that terrible cauldron of economic misery, the labor market difficulties experienced by many inner-city residents are deepened. Imprisonment becomes a cause as well as a reflection of the severe economic under-development that drains leading prisoner return neighborhoods of the economic resources necessary to enable meaningful prisoner reentry. The savage irony, of course, is that the dreadful labor market situation of ex-offenders combines with numerous other factors to make it likely that the majority of released prisoners will commit new crimes and return to prison (22).
Cloaking Real Black Male Unemployment
Along the way, racially disparate mass confinement works to reduce societyâ€™s awareness of the very labor black labor market disadvantage it worsens by artificially suppressing the official black male unemployment rate. By the mid-1990s, Western and Becky Pettit found, that rate would have been 39 percent if prisoners had been factored in to the calculations (23). Following the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, we might say that the negative intervention of the stateâ€™s authoritarian and regressive right hand in the form of mass incarceration obstructs public understanding of a problem â€“ massive black unemployment (especially intense in the inner city) â€“ that might, if properly grasped, help spark positive progressive and intervention by the more social and democratic left hand of the state (24).
Completing the Criminogenic Circle
Mass incarcerationâ€™s ironic criminogenic impact on the rural prison industryâ€™s critical human raw material goes beyond the way it cheapens yet further the already degraded value of black, inner city labor power. As Clear has noted, the rampant arrest and incarceration of inner-city youth for drug crimes creates an ironic â€œreplacement effectâ€ that â€œcancels out the crime-prevention benefits of incapacitation.â€ In the face of a stable demand for illegal substances, mass arrest and incarceration â€œcreates job openings in the drug delivery enterprise and allows for an ever-broadening recruitment of citizens into the illegal trade.â€ At the same time, mass incarceration deepens the presence of negative â€œsocial factorsâ€ that contribute to criminality in minority communities: broken families, inequality, poverty, alienation, and social disorder (25). It also ironically undercuts the deterrent power of prison. â€œAs more people acquire a grounded knowledge of prison life,â€ Clear finds, â€œthe power of prison to deter crime through fear is diminished.â€ Thus, Newsweek reporter Ellis Cose has found that prison has â€œbecome so routineâ€ in some urban minority neighborhoods â€œthat going in can be an opportunity for reconnecting with friends.â€ A drug-dealer from
It doesnâ€™t help, of course, that inmate education and rehabilitation have been systematically de-legitimized and de-funded as the US has built a record number of new prisons in a spirit of what prisoner â€œreentryâ€ expert Jeremy Travis calls â€œrobust retributivismâ€ (27). Also undermining successful ex-prisoner re-entry and feeding recidivism is the fact that prisons have been constructed at increasing distances from predominantly urban prisonersâ€™ communities of origin. â€œTwo thirdsâ€ of New Yorkâ€™s â€œnew prisons have been built in rural areas,â€ Wagner and Heyer note, â€œdespite research showing that incarcerating a prisoner close to home aids family visits and helps reduce the odds a prison will re-offend and be returned to prisonâ€ (28) Illinoisâ€™ disproportionately black and Chicago-based inmates have been further removed over time from family, community networks, and support services vital to successful reintegration â€“ one of many ways in which place matters in the making of modern racial inequality (29).
The perverse, viciously circular, Orwellian, and self-fulfilling logic of racially disparate mass incarceration is darkly impressive. The currently existing mass imprisonment of â€œurban felonsâ€ from de-industrialized black neighborhoods is a major contributor to â€œthe continuation of crime-producing conditionsâ€ upon which prison-hosting towns depend.
In assessing mass incarcerationâ€™s negative, crime-encouraging impact on inner-city communities, we should also calculate and factor in the considerable anti-poverty and related public safety cost of spending billions of dollars on the imprisonment of inner city residents. Those funds would be more productively spent on educating, training, treating, training, and otherwise supporting people stuck in the nationâ€™s many high-crime ghetto communities. They could also be dedicated to the enforcement of civil rights laws against racial discrimination in labor, real-estate, and financial markets. That discrimination provides critical context for the economic under-development of the nationâ€™s most heavily crime and incarceration-intensive communities (30).
By the turn of the millennium, the Justice Policy Institute reports, it was â€œcosting states, counties, and the federal government nearly $40 billion to imprison approximately two million state and local inmates, up from $5 billion in combined prison and jail expenditures in 1978. The massive growth in state prisoners over the past two decades has meant that one out of every 14 general fund dollars spent in 2000 was spent on prisons.â€ Public investment in incarceration was so extensive, indeed, that several large states spent as much or more money to incarcerate adults than they did to provide their citizens with college and graduate educations. States spent 60 cents on prisons for every dollar they spent on higher education, up from 28 cents in 1980 (31).
Meanwhile, the nationâ€™s urban minority and rural public schools continued to suffer from persistent savage funding inadequacy and inequity. The nationâ€™s hyper-segregated and widely under-funded educational system produced a regular stream of poorly educated graduates and drop outs that fed both the cell blocks and the guard staffs of the nationâ€™s expanding network of increasingly rural penitentiaries (32).
COMMON GROUND ACROSS THE RACIAL AND SPATIAL PRISON DIVIDE?
Given some of what we are beginning to learn about the economic (as well as the social and spiritual) limits of prisonomics as a provider of â€œgood jobsâ€ and development to non-metropolitan Americans (33) I wish to conclude this generally disturbing discussion on a hopeful note. People and communities, it is becoming increasingly evident (34) on both sides of the at once spatially and racially loaded mass incarceration coin have some sound (if all too hidden) reasons for collaboration to collaborate in pursuit of progressive changes.
Both groups require and deserve decent, good-paying, and soul-nourishing jobs, the reconstruction and expansion of basic social-contractual safety nets, and significant public investments in things like public education, job-training, substance abuse treatment, universal health insurance, child care, public transportation, treatment â€“ to mention just some of the most relevant and unmet program needs. They both need the US to shift from a low- road to a high-road path of balanced, high-wage, and worker- (instead of management and super-vision-) centered development (35).
They both need
They both need and deserve meaningful development choices beyond the confines of an authoritarian, racist, zero-sum political economy that has generated the most unequal distribution of wealth in the industrialized world (36) and given intimately related rise to an internal, dangerously proto-fascistic and racist â€œPrison Nation.â€
Alongside the encouraging fact that most Americans actually oppose the vicious circle of racially disparate mass incarceration (37) and that are few policy few policy mysteries on how to break that circle (38) these and other commonalities of interest between the prison-fed and the prison-feeding communities provide some basis for optimism regarding the prospects for rolling back racially disparate mass incarceration in the U.S.
* This essay was originally written in late summer of 2005, to be included in a book collection that was mysteriously and strangely butchered by an anonymous editor.
1. Peter Kilborn, "Rural Towns Turn to Prisons to Re-ignite Their Economies," New York Times, 1 August, 2001, A1.
2. Francis X. Donnelly, â€œ
3. â€œTowns Put Dreams in Prisons,â€
5. Tracy Huling, â€œBuilding a Prison Economy in Rural
6.Huling, â€œBuilding a Prison Economy,â€, p. 197.
7. For some troubling reflections in that regard see
8. Justice Policy Institute, Cell Blocks or Classrooms? The Funding of Higher Education and Corrections and Its Impact on African American Men (2002); Jan Chaiken, â€œCrunching Numbers: Crime and Incarceration at the End of the Millennium,â€ National Institute of Justice Journal (January 2000); Mother Jones and Justice Policy Institute, â€œDebt to Societyâ€ (2001), available online at ://www.motherjones.com/news/special_reports/prisons; Human Rights Watch, World Report 2002: United States
9. Street, Vicious Circle, pp. 11-12; Illinois Board of Education, IBHE Data Book (2002); Illinois Department of Corrections, 2001 departmental data, retrieved December 11, 2001 at www.idoc.state.il.us. For comparison with
10. U.S. Census Bureau, â€œThe Black Population in the
11. Detailed prison release data from Illinois Department of Corrections, Department of Planning and Research, 2002; Street, Vicious Circle, pp. 17-20.
13. Peter Wagner and Rose Hyer, â€œToo Big to Ignore: How Counting People in the Prisons Distored Census 2000â€ (Prison Policy Initiative, April 2000, available online at www.prisonersofthecensus.org/toobig/toobig.shtml; Wagner and Hyer, â€œThirty-Two Years After Attica: Many More Blacks in Prison But Not as Guards,â€ (Prison Policy Initiative, September 25, 2003).
14. Wagner and Heyer, â€œToo Big to Ignore;â€ Wagner and Heyer, â€œOutdated Methodology Impairs Census Bureauâ€™s Count of Black Populationâ€ (Prison Policy Initiative, May 3, 2004); United States Census, Community Fact Sheet for Ionia County, available at http://factfinder.census.gov/home/ saff/main.html?_l ang=en.
15. Todd Clear, â€œBackfire: When Incarceration Increases Crime,â€ and Demetra Smith Nightingale and Harold Watts, â€œAdding It Up: the Economic Impact of Incarceration on Individuals, Families, and Communities,â€ in The Vera Institute of Justice, The Unintended Consequences of Incarceration (New York, NY: Vera Institute of Justice, January 1996).
16. Eric Lotke and Peter Wagner, â€œPrisoners of the Census: Electoral and Financial Consequences of Counting Prisoners Where They Go, Not Where They Come From,â€ Pace Law Review, volume 24:587 (2004): 587-607; Molly Dugan, â€œCensus Dollars Bring Bounty to Prison Towns,â€ Chicago Reporter (July/August 2000), available online at http://www.chicagoreporter. com/2000/8-2000/prison/prison.htm; Paul Street, â€œâ€˜Those People in that Prison Canâ€™t Vote Me Outâ€™: The Political Consequences of Felony Disenfranchisement,â€ Black Commentator, Issue 68 (December 11, 2003), available online at http://www.blackcommentator.com/68/68_street_prisons.html;Christopher Uggen, Jeff Manza, and Angela Behrens, â€œBallot Manipulation and the â€˜Menace of Negro Dominationâ€™: Racial Threat and Felony Disenfranchisement in the United States, 1850-2002,â€ American Journal of Sociology, volume 109 (2003): 559-605.
18. See Huling, â€œBuilding a Prison Economy;â€ Ryan S. King, Marc Mauer, and Tracy Huling, Big Prisons,
19. Harry Holzer, Steven Raphael, and Michael Stoll, â€œPerceived Criminality, Criminal Background Checks and the Racial Hiring Practices of Employers,â€ paper delivered at Institute for Policy Research,
20. Bruce Western and Becky Pettit, â€œIncarceration And Racial Inequality In Menâ€™s Employment,â€ Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 54 (October, 2000): 3-16; Bruce Western, â€œThe Impact of Incarceration on Earnings,â€ paper delivered at the 2000 annual meetings of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (London); Devah Pager, â€œCriminal Careers: the Consequences of Incarceration for Occupational Attainment,â€ paper delivered at the Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association, 2001.
21. Pager, â€œCriminal Careers;â€ Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett, â€œHow Unregulated is the US Labor Market? The Penal System as a Labor Market Institution,â€ American Journal of Sociology, 104 (January 1999): 1030-1060.
22. William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York, NY: Vintage, 1997); Street, Still Separate, Unequal, pp. 27-152; Street, The Vicious Circle, pp. 3, 15-28, 32-39; ; Bruce Western, Jeffrey Kling, and David Weiman, â€œThe Labor Market Consequences of Incarceration,â€ Crime and Delinquency, 47 (July 2001): 410-27. According to the Wall Street Journal in the spring of 2005, â€œthere is an emerging beliefâ€ in the
23. Bruce Western and Becky Pettit, â€œIncarceration and Racial Inequality in Menâ€™s Employment,â€ Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 54 (October 2000): 3-16.
24. Pierre Bordieu, Acts of Resistance (New York: Free Press, 1998), p. 2. See also
25. Clear, â€œBackfire.â€
26. Clear, op cit; Ellis Cose, â€œThe Prison Paradox,â€ Newsweek , (November 13, 2000): 40-46.
27. Travis, But They All Come Back, p.xx.
28. Wagner and Heyer, â€œThirty-Two Years After
30. Street, Still Separate, Unequal, pp. 123-153.
31. Justice Policy Institute and Mother Jones, â€œDebt to Society;â€ Justice Policy Institute, Cell Blocks or Classrooms; John Hagan and Ronit Dinovitzer, â€œCollateral Consequences of Imprisonment for Children, Communities, and Prisoners,â€ 1999) in Tonry and Petersilia, eds., Prisons, volume 26 of Crime and Justice: A Review of Research (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
33. See Huling, â€œBuilding a Prison Economy;â€ King, Mauer, and Huling, Big Prisons,
35. On the distinction between a more worker-centered and â€œhigh roadâ€ and a more management-centered â€œlow-roadâ€ economic strategy, see David M. Gordon, Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial â€œDownsizingâ€ (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996), which contains some fascinating and suggestive reflections on what he saw as the intimate interrelationship between (a) the United Statesâ€™ massive racially disparate mass incarceration â€œgarrison stateâ€ and (b) authoritarian â€œlow-roadâ€ and management â€“intensive/low-wage economics driven largely (in his analysis) by corporate-bureaucratic bloat.
36. Gordon, Fat and Mean; Donald Barlett and James Steele,
37. Justice Policy Institute, Cutting Correctly: New Prison Policies for a Time of Fiscal Crisis (February 7, 2002); Peter D. Hart Research Associates, â€œChanging Public Attitudes Toward the Criminal Justice Systemâ€ (
38. Street, The Vicious Circle, pp. 42-43. For positive solutions on the prisoner reentry side, see Jeremy Travis, But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry (