With more than 2.4 million people in jails and prisons, the United States spends $80 billion a year to sustain its system of incarceration—more than it spends on education, housing, and other important services that could prevent crime in our communities.
Locking people up is expensive — and few groups understand that better than black women.
I’ve paid more than my share of legal fees to support a loved one who was trying to recover from incarceration — and I know that I am not alone. In a society that stigmatizes incarceration, access to employment, housing, treatment for addiction, and other important services are often nearly impossible to access without the support of a loved one who might be more stable — even if only marginally so.
Given the exhaustive discussions on racial disparities that present us with a working knowledge of disproportionately high incarceration rates in Black communities, it comes as no surprise how deeply impacted our women are by the incarceration of a loved one. And yet, we should all be concerned.
According to Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, a new report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design, not only are Black women largely footing the bill for our nation’s overreliance on incarceration, they are also often stigmatized when their loved ones return home and are subject to restrictive (often discriminatory) housing policies that ultimately render them vulnerable to homelessness and poverty.
The study showed that the average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees was $13,607, a financial burden that is altogether unacceptable when you consider this amounts to almost an entire year’s annual income for people earning less than $15,000 per year — the group most vulnerable to incarceration in the first place.
According to the report, in 63 percent of cases family members of incarcerated people were responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction. Among those responsible for these costs, 83 percent were women
“Families are stepping up to fill the gap despite the obstacles,” said Azadeh Zohrabi, National Campaigner for the Ella Baker Center. “This report shows the generational effect of incarceration, and how it destroys social ties we need for healthy and safe communities.”
For example, many of us have accepted “the collect call” from a loved one who has been locked away. Love transcends bars, which means that many family members of incarcerated people are going into debt to ensure their family bonds are able to survive the sentence. According to the report, more than one-third of families went into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone.
To be clear, this is not only about the costs associated with incarcerating the men in our communities. According to Alicia Walters, Movement Building Director at Forward Together, regardless of the gender identity of the person incarcerated, it’s women who are disproportionately impacted.
“One in two African American women has a loved one in prison…Black women are being dragged into deeper poverty, stress and strain when their loves ones are incarcerated. Regardless of the gender — whether it’s men, women, or transgender people — it’s still women, mostly mothers, paying the fees and fines,” Walters told EBONY. “It’s women on the outside who are risking their jobs and their housing to take care of their loved ones.”
This may be overwhelming — a daunting reality that could render us feeling powerless. But if there’s one thing we’re not, it’s powerless. Black women have been leaders in every major civil rights, racial and social justice movement in American history. Our ability to renegotiate the terms of our freedoms — and those of our families and communities — is an asset that we should absolutely leverage in response to this crisis.
Conversations about challenging the consequences of incarceration — direct and collateral — are now taking place at the federal, state and local levels, accompanied by campaigns that remove blanket bans against employment and that uplift fairness and dignity along a person’s journey toward recovery and reintegration to community.
With fewer than 500 days left before the end of the Obama Administration, we could (and should) work to further support efforts to mitigate the disproportionate burden caused by incarceration by investing in the strategies, programs, and practices that produce positive health outcomes, support economic sufficiency, and ultimately reduce recidivism and restore positive relationships with families and communities.
Importantly, like the Who Pays? report, this work to reduce incarceration and its effects on communities should be done in partnership with those who are most affected by incarceration. As a community of the concerned (and deeply affected), we should work with organizations like Just Leadership USA and All of Us or None to advance advocacy efforts that call for a restructure of the investment in justice such that it prioritizes diversion, intervention, and alternatives to incarceration.
Each of us can play a role in fixing this problem. The costs associated with doing anything less are far greater than any of us can afford.
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is a social justice scholar, author of Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century, and co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute.