My journey to intellectual and spiritual freedom began in 1995 with the bone-crushing grip of a pair of NYPD handcuffs. What followed was a six-year prison sentence in an Attica, N.Y., correctional facility for a first-degree robbery conviction. Referring to my new home as a “correctional facility,” however, was a joke. The place was perverse and abusive; it was fraught with staff misconduct, flooded with illegal drugs and weapons, and devoid of anything that could be considered rehabilitative.
Despite all of that, on my last day in prison I cried, thinking about the men I was leaving behind. On the opposite end of the hallway I was fast exiting were some of the sharpest minds and the most amazing amount of creativity I had ever witnessed—a glaring contrast to the stereotype America has created of its prison class. While locked up, I saw men boil water in plastic bottles and make toilet paper into wicks that burned long enough to cook on. I saw people light cigarettes with only a pencil and an outlet. I was about to face my new future minus the ingenuity of the fortuitous souls I had come to know, and it hit me that the world had been duped into completely discarding them—me—when in fact, prison was a warehouse of human potential.
THE STATS ARE STAGGERING
The U.S. prison population has more than quadrupled since 1980, and this nation incarcerates more of its citizens per capita than any other developed country in modern history—at a cost of $85 billion per year. Although the United States holds only 5 percent of the world’s total population, it comprises a whopping 25 percent of the world’s prison population. When we include fees for policing, courts and legal services, the annual cost balloons to approximately $261 billion. What’s more, it bears constant repeating that the anguish of our criminal justice hellscape is not distributed evenly across demographic lines. When 60 percent of a nation’s incarcerated population is Black—a group that comprises only 13 percent of said nation’s population total—“individual responsibility” alone cannot explain the phenomenon.
“The criminal justice system has never been equal across society, and that [inequality] causes a lot of other problems across society,” says Brooklyn, N.Y., Council Member Jumaane D. Williams, who is also co-chair of the council’s Task Force to Combat Gun Violence. “Just locking people up is not the answer to anything and has never been.”
Yet one in three Black men can reliably expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. Black women are three times more likely to be incarcerated than White women, and Black youth have the highest rates of juvenile incarceration. Even more ominous for our children is the fact that 58 percent of Black youngsters convicted of a crime are sent to adult prisons, far outpacing the rate for any other youth group. In the federal prison system, too, Black defendants are 20 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison than White ones, and they receive 10 percent longer sentences for the same crimes. Individual responsibility?
A SCARLET LETTER
The concept of “time served” is a mirage, because the shackles of collateral consequences make a criminal conviction a “scarlet letter.” Each year, more than 700,000 people are expected to reintegrate back into our communities, often with minimal education, no employment, no stable homes awaiting them, substance abuse issues, medical needs and/or mental health problems, or some combination of these ills.
While these numbers are jarring on their own, they do not reflect the even larger number of people who cycle through the court system. Those who take a plea to a lesser charge to expedite their cases and return to their communities also face a myriad of statutory and practical barriers based on having a criminal record. This has a massive impact on people—Black men, in particular: access to schools, housing, public safety, the labor market and even the ballot box is called into question. Today, the wide dissemination of criminal record databases by both the government and the private sector serves as a surrogate for race-based discrimination in America, whether deliberate or unintentional. “With approximately 1 in 4 Americans with a criminal record, we really need a finite and attainable path to a clean record,” says Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel. “I would strongly advocate for, at sentencing, a period of time after which (assuming no further criminal behavior ensues) an individual’s record would automatically be expunged.”
A plan like that would have worked well for Paul Brown,* 44, who pled down to a class B felony possession charge for having an illegal weapon in his car when he was 27. Devastated from an earlier incident when he was shot by a childhood friend after breaking up a fight between that friend and another, Brown carried a gun underneath his seat “for protection.” But no prior record and a tendency to be the “good” guy in bad situations didn’t save him from being essentially locked out of the job market. “I was never a violent guy,” Brown explains. “I think the judge knew that, and that’s why I was issued a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities form, which was supposed to stop employers from barring me from work. Yeah, right.”
With a felony record, Brown found it nearly impossible to get hired for several years. “What would the criminal justice system look like if presumption were that an individual would not be incarcerated for a crime unless the prosecutor could prove that public safety could only be ensured by incarceration? Answer: a much smaller system, and I sincerely believe that it would not result in increased crime,” Wetzel adds.
Though Wetzel has more than 25 years of experience working in the criminal justice system— and he presided over the first prison population reduction in Pennsylvania in more than four decades after becoming secretary in 2009—most lawmakers are not pushing for such progressive policies. Many government agencies have promulgated a vast array of counterproductive laws, regulations and policies that make it more difficult for formerly incarcerated people and others with criminal records to re-enter society successfully. As a result, these men and women struggle to put their lives back together even after completing their sentences, demonstrating that they are not a threat to public safety and expressing their commitment to becoming productive tax-paying citizens.
“Our [social structures] don’t make it easy; oftentimes, we make it harder and likely that the recidivism rate will be high,” says Councilman Williams, adding it is one thing to talk about change but another to push for laws and policies that will get it done. “People say, yes, the formerly incarcerated should get an education. But then if it’s free, they say, ‘Oh, no! They did a crime and shouldn’t get anything for free.’”
When people ask, “What about the victims?” it is important to recognize that according to the data, young Black men like Brown who have been vilified and find themselves overpoliced and overincarcerated are also disproportionately victims of crime and violence. Addressing the structural racism that contributes to disparities in the criminal justice system, therefore, must include an acknowledgement and rewriting of the narrative to include their experiences as victims. In my own journey to prison, for example, I did not learn to pull a gun on others until someone pulled a gun on me.
Years after the aggressive expansion of President Richard Nixon’s 1971 “War on Drugs,” elected officials and other decision makers opened the criminal justice system to business interests. Incarceration itself—with the massive public dollars allocated for prison expenditures—was primed for private -industry exploitation. Not only do the corporate sponsors of punishment in America rake in massive profits, but they also turn some of this profit over to campaign contributions and lobbying efforts, purchasing their way into the hearts of influential politicians.
The inevitable result of a system driven by racism, fear and the pursuit of profit is society’s acceptance of the systematic mistreatment of poor people and persons of color—so often Black men. Ultimately, this has led to the creation of a caste system, with incarcerated individuals and their respective communities at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy and educational access tiers.
The positive news is that the United States is on the cusp of a movement to potentially remedy four decades of misguided and overly punitive criminal justice policies. Recently, President Barack Obama addressed an audience at the NAACP, stating, “Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair, that’s not a justice system, that’s an injustice system. . . . Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it’s the presence of opportunity.”
* Not his real name