Mass Incarceration and Cities

5.17.13 | Back in the colonial America, people were thrown in jail for owing money they couldn’t pay. Debtor’s prisons, and their cousin “the poor house,” were commonplace until the early 1800s, when they were outlawed at the federal level. Most of the prisoners owed minimal amounts. Of the 1,162 debtors in prison in New York City in 1787 and 1788, 716 of them owed under 20 shillings.

From our vantage point today, we may shake our heads at such notion idea. Harsh, inhuman, barbaric even. Yet we shouldn’t feel too smug. As Cook County Commissioner Toni Preckwinkle told a recent audience at the May 10 Urban Network forum on “Health in Cities,” today’s jails are essentially a 21 century debtors prison. 

Ninety percent of those in Cook County jails, Preckwinkle said, are in jail awaiting trial because they can’t pay their bond. And most of those are in jail in the first place on a minor drug charge. Such an offense, she said, can carry a $2,000 bail, meaning the individual needs to come up with $200 to be released to await the trial. For most of us reading this blog, $200 isn’t much. But for many persons in jail, it’s out of reach. Jail is the new poorhouse.

Ask Jack Dawley, as a recent MoneyWatch report did. Dawley at age 55 was unemployed who over a span of five years spent a total of 16 days in jail in a Huron County, Ohio. He was in jail for failing to pay roughly $1,500 in legal fines he’d incurred in the 1990s.

The fines stemmed from Dawley’s convictions for driving under the influence and other offenses. After his release from a Wisconsin correctional facility, Dawley, who admits he had struggled with drugs and alcohol, got clean. But if he put his substance problems behind him, Dawley’s couldn’t outrun his debts.

Struggling to find a job and dealing with the effects of a back injury, he fell behind on repayments to the municipal court in Norwalk, Ohio. He was arrested six years ago and sent to jail for not paying his original court fines. Although Dawley was put on a monthly payment plan, during his latest stint behind bars in 2012 the court ordered him to pay off his entire remaining debt.

” I called my brother, and they told him I have to pay off the whole fine in order for me to get out,” he said. “That was $900. So I sat my whole 10 days [in jail.]“

The population in America’s jails and prisons on drug charges has exploded, and while rural America has used the building of prisons as a perverse economic development strategy, crime and incarceration are problems of cities. The “war on drugs” together with tougher sentencing, limits on parole for repeat offenders and tougher policing, these policies have led to a U.S. prison population that rivals the former penal systems in the former Soviet Union and South Africa, writes Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western in a 2010 issue of Future of Children.

The “stupid, self-destructive war on drugs,” Preckwinkle says, has created a penal system that sits squarely at the intersection of racism and poverty. Indeed, it’s the new Jim Crow, writes Michelle Alexander in a book by the same name.

The mass incarceration, whether in jails or prisons, has left a trail of destruction in communities in cities across the nation as well as in the lives of the wives and children of the men, for it’s mostly men who are imprisoned–and largely black men. Among men born between 1975 and 1979, approximately one in five African American men have experienced prison by age 34, write Wildeman and Western. For comparable white men, the rate was one in 30. And the odds go up as education levels go down. African American with just a high school degree and born in between 1975 and 1979 faced a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison at some point, while those with less than a high school degree had a 2 in 3 chance.

And many of these men are fathers. In 2000, writes Wildeman and Western, 10%  of African American children had a parent incarcerated on any given day.

The effects of imprisonment on men are many.  A cab driver was telling me recently that he was at the barbershop and a 32-year-old man –recently released from prison–broke down in tears because he couldn’t find a job with a record. (The cab driver was not sympathetic, however. “He wanted sympathy,” he told me, “but he should have thought of that before he committed a crime.”) The cab driver probably assumed, like most of us, that the man had committed a violent crime. But the odds are, he was busted on a minor drug charge.

Wildeman and Western found that incarceration can lower men’s earnings by up to 30%, mostly because it’s hard to convince employers to hire the formerly incarcerated. The scar is not only economic. The authors note that both mental and physical health are affected. Michael Massoglia has found that formerly incarcerated men are more likely to suffer from various infectious and stress-related diseases.  At the Urban Network forum, a University of Chicago team, led by Diane Lauderdale, a professor of epidemiology, reported on a “striking increase” in MRSA–a staph-like infection– in Illinois jails. They attribute the spread to the habits in jail of avoiding showers, the banning of alcohol wipes (because prisoners drink the alcohol), and the tendency of prisoners to lance each other’s boils.  Other researchers have connected the rise of AIDS with state imprisonment.

It’s not only the men. Their children are affected as well, manifesting mostly through behavioral problems. They are also at higher risk for foster care, homelessness, and infant mortality, say Wildeman and Western.

Many of these men are not angels. Some families are relieved to see them go, given prior violence or drug use. But even among women who were relieved to see them go agreed that imprisonment had negative consequences over the long run. And perversely, Wildeman and Western write, “the corrosive effects of incarceration on family life are especially pronounced when the fathers were involved in neither domestic violence nor violent crime before being imprisoned.”

Criminals should be punished, make no mistake, says Preckwinkle. But be “smart on crime,” not “tough on crime,” she says.

Beyond reforming sentencing laws, cities would be stronger if there were more help for men (and women) to avoid the temptation of easy money through crime. Creating jobs is a first step. Wildeman and Western note that the decline of manufacturing jobs in cities is also a culprit in the rise in crime. The Brookings Institution has some ideas on how to rebuild manufacturing in the nation’s metro regions, including the perfectly named, Race to the Shop. And the Obama administration recently announced the creation of three more public-private manufacturing research institutes as nodes of a $1 billion National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI).

Without these and other investments, far too many families will be scarred by incarceration. And cities will suffer the brunt of the fallout.

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