Race, Prison, and Poverty
The race to incarcerate in the age of correctional
by Paul Street
Z magazine, May 2001
In the last two-and-a-half decades, the prison population
has undergone what the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics
director Jan Chaiken last year called "literally incredible"
expansion. Chaiken reported a quadrupling of the U.S. incarceration
rate since 1975. That rate, more than 600 prisoners for every
100,000 people, is by far the highest in the industrialized world.
The U.S. incarcerates its citizens at a rate six times higher
than Canada, England, and France, seven times higher than Switzerland
and Holland, and ten times Sweden and Finland. Beyond sheer magnitude,
a second aspect of America's incarceration boom is its heavily
racialized nature. On any given day, Chaiken reported, 30 percent
of African-American males ages 20 to 29 are "under correctional
supervision"-either in jail or prison or on probation or
parole. Especially chilling is a statistical model used by the
Bureau of Justice Statistics to determine the lifetime chances
of incarceration for individuals in different racial and ethnic
groups. Based on current rates, it predicts that a young Black
man age 16 in 1996 faces a 29 percent chance of spending time
in prison during his life. The corresponding statistic for white
men in the same age group is 4 percent. According to Thomas K.
Lowenstein, director of the Electronic Policy Network, 7 percent
of Black children-nearly 9 times more than white children-have
an incarcerated parent.
In Illinois, the prison population has grown by more than
60 percent since 1990. That growth has been fueled especially
by Black admissions, including a rising number of nonviolent drug
offenders. Two thirds of the state's more than 44,000 prisoners
are African-American. According to the Chicago Reporter, a monthly
magazine that covers race and poverty issues, 1 in 5 Black Cook
County (which contains Chicago and some of its suburbs) men in
their 20s are either in prison or jail or on parole. For Cook
County whites of the same gender and age, the corresponding ratio
is 1 in 104. Illinois has 115,746 more persons enrolled in its
4-year public universities than in its prisons. When it comes
to Blacks, however, it has 10,000 more prisoners. For every African-American
enrolled in those universities, two and a-half Blacks are in prison
or on parole in Illinois. Similar racially specific reversals
of meaning can be found in other states with significant Black
populations. In New York, the Justice Policy Institute reports
that more Blacks entered prison just for drug offense than graduated
from the state's massive university system with undergraduate,
masters, and doctoral degrees combined in the 1990s.
In some inner-city neighborhoods, a preponderant majority
of Black males now possess criminal records. According to Congressperson
Danny Davis, fully 70 percent of men between ages 18 and 45 in
the impoverished North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago's West
Side are ex-offenders. Chris Moore, director of the Chicago Urban
League's Male Involvement Program, which provides support services
to 16- to 35-year-old fathers in 2 high poverty South Side neighborhoods,
reports that the same percentage of his clients are saddled with
criminal records. Job placement counselors at the League's Employment,
Training, and Counseling Department estimate that half of their
3,742 predominantly Black clients last year listed felony records
as a leading barrier to employment. Criminologists Dina Rose and
Todd Clear found Black neighborhoods in Tallahassee where every
resident could identify at least one friend or relative who has
been incarcerated. In predominantly Black urban communities across
the country, incarceration is so widespread and commonplace that
it has become what Chaiken calls "almost a normative life
A Many-Sided Disenfranchisement
Researchers and advocates tracking the impact of mass incarceration
find a number of devastating consequences in high-poverty Black
communities. The most well known form of this so-called "collateral
damage in the war on drugs" is the widespread political disenfranchisement
of felons and ex-felons. Ten states deny voting rights for life
to ex-felons. According to the Sentencing Project, 46 states prohibit
inmates from voting while serving a felony sentence, 32 states
deny the vote to felons on parole, and 29 states disenfranchise
felony probationers. Thanks to these rules, 13 percent of all
Black men in the U.S. have lost their electoral rights-"a
bitter aftermath," notes British sociologist David Ladipo,
"to the expansion of voting rights secured, at such cost,
by the freedom marches of the fifties and sixties." But the
economic effects are equally significant. When prison and felony
records are thrown into that mixture, the labor market consequences
are often disastrous. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear academic
researchers and service providers cite unemployment rates as high
as 50 percent for people with records. One study, based in California
during the early 1990s, found that just 21 percent of that state's
parolees were working full time. In a detailed study, Karen Needels
found that less than 40 percent of 1,176 men released from Georgia's
prison system in 1976 had any officially recorded earnings in
each year from 1983 to 1991. For those with earnings, average
annual wages were exceedingly low and differed significantly by
race: white former inmates averaged $7,880 per year and Blacks
made just $4,762. In the most widely cited study in the growing
literature on the labor market consequences of racially disparate
criminal justice policies, Harvard economist Richard Freeman used
data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY). Limiting
his sample to out-of-school men and controlling for numerous variables
(drug usage, education, region, and age) that might bias upward
the link between criminal records and weak labor market attachment,
Freeman found that those who had been in jail or on probation
in 1980 had a 19 percent higher chance of being unemployed in
1988 than those with no involvement in the criminal justice system.
He also found that prison records reduced the amount of time employed
after release by 25 to 30 percent.
More recently, Princeton sociologist Bruce Western has mined
NLSY data to show that incarceration has "large and enduring
effects on job-prospects of ex-convicts." He finds that the
negative labor market effects of youth incarceration can last
for more than a decade and that adult incarceration reduces paid
employment by five to ten weeks annually. Since incarceration
rates are especially high among those with the least power in
the labor market (young and unskilled minority men), he shows,
U.S. incarceration dramatically exacerbates inequality. This research
is consistent with numerous experimental studies suggesting that
the employment prospects of job applicants with criminal records
are far worse than the chances of persons who have never been
convicted or imprisoned and from the testimony of job placement
professionals who deal with ex-offenders. "Even when paroled
inmates are able to find jobs," the New York Times reported
last Fall, "they earn only half as much as people of the
same social and economic background who have not been incarcerated."
The obstacles to ex-offender employment include the simple refusal
of many employers to even consider hiring an "ex-con."
Employers routinely check for criminal backgrounds in numerous
sectors, including banking, security, financial services, law,
education, and health care. But for many jobs, employer attitudes
are irrelevant: state codes places steep barriers to the hiring
of ex-offenders in numerous government and other occupations.
At the same time, ex-offenders are further disadvantaged in the
labor market by the nature of daily prison experience. "The
increasingly violent and overcrowded state of prisons and jails,"
notes Western, "is likely to produce certain attitudes, mannerisms,
and behavioral practices that 'on the inside' function to enhance
survival but are not compatible with success in the conventional
job market." The alternately aggressive and sullen posture
that prevails behind bars is deadly in a job market where entry-level
occupations increasingly demand "soft" skills related
to selling and customer service. In this as in countless other
ways, the inmate may be removed, at least temporarily, from prison
but prison lives on within the ex-offender, limiting his "freedom"
on the "outside." The barriers to employment created
by mass incarceration for African-Americans are not limited to
those with records. As sociologist Elijah Anderson has noted,
the "astonishing" number and percentage of Black men
who are under the supervision of the criminal justice system "must
be considered partly responsible for the widespread perception
of young Black men as dangerous and not to be trusted."
Ex-offenders' chances for successful "reintegration"
are worsened by the de-legitimization of rehabilitation that has
accompanied the rise of the American mass incarceration state.
Under the now dominant penal paradigm of literal "incapacitation,"
the number of inmates enrolled in drug treatment, job-training,
or educational programs has been in steep decline since the 1980s.
According to the Institute on Crime, Justice, and Corrections,
just 9 percent of prisoners are currently engaged in full-time
job-training or education activities. Numerous states, including
New York, have eliminated inmates' right to take college extension
courses and Congress has repealed prisoners' right to receive
Pell grants to pay for college tuition.
Savage Ironies and Sinister Synergies
The situation arising from mass Black incarceration is fraught
with savage, self-fulfilling policy ironies and sinister sociological
synergies. Criminal justice policies are pushing hundreds of thousands
of already disadvantaged and impoverished "underclass"
Blacks further from minimally remunerative engagement with the
According to Lowenstein, 80 percent of America's prison inmates
are parents. Researchers estimate that children of prisoners are
five times more likely to experience incarceration than those
who never experience the pain of having one of their parents imprisoned.
Meanwhile, incarceration deepens a job-skill deficit that a significant
body of research shows to be a leading factor explaining "criminal"
behavior among disadvantaged people in the first place. "Crime
rates are inversely related," Richard B. Freeman and Jeffrey
Fagan have shown, "to expected legal wages, particularly
among young males with limited job skills or prospects."
The "war on drugs" that contributes so strongly to minority
incarceration inflates the price of underground substances, combining
with ex-offenders' shortage of marketable skills in the legal
economy to create irresistible incentives for parolees to engage
in precisely the sort of income-generating conduct that leads
back to prison.
In Illinois today, 36 percent of ex-offenders and a staggering
48 percent of Black ex-offenders return to prison within three
years. These numbers bother Danny Davis, whose Seventh District
on Chicago's West Side contains five ex-prisoner transition centers.
As men and women in his district "transition from incarceration
to freedom," Davis recently told the Illinois Senate Judiciary
Committee, "What they need most are jobs. What they find
instead," Davis has learned, "are cold stares, unreturned
phone calls, and closed doors. The jobs are far and few between,
and in most cases non-existent" even for "serious and
earnest men and women, working to clean up their act, and transition
into productive citizens."
Denied what Davis calls "a second chance to become productive
citizens," even rehabilitation-minded ex-offenders often
find themselves re-enmeshed in illicit but income-generating activities
that land them back in downstate lockups. The lost potential earnings,
savings, consumer demand, and human and social capital that result
from mass incarceration cost Black communities untold millions
of dollars in potential economic development, worsening an inner-city
political economy already crippled by decades of capital flight
and de-industrialization. The dazed, battered, and embittered
products of the prison-industrial complex are released back into
a relatively small number of predominantly Black and high-poverty
zip-codes and census tracts, deepening the savage concentration
of poverty, crime, and despair that is the hallmark of modern
American "hyper-segregation" by race and class.
The growth in spending on prisons is directly related to a
decline in the growth of positive social spending in such poverty-
and crime-reducing areas as education, child-care, and job training.
Sociologists John Hagan and Ronit Dinovitzer find that public
investment in incarceration is now "so extensive that several
large states now spend as much or more money to incarcerate young
adults than to educate their college-age citizens." From
the 1980s through the l990s, they report, correctional spending
has risen at a faster rate than any other type of state expenditure
category, creating significant opportunity costs that contribute
to a vicious, self-fulfilling circle of negative public investment.
The New Racism
Meanwhile, prisoners' deletion from official U.S. unemployment
statistics contributes to excessively rosy perceptions of American
socioeconomic performance that worsen the political climate for
minorities. Bruce Western has shown that factoring incarceration
into unemployment rates challenges the conventional American notion
that the United States' "unregulated" labor markets
have been out-performing Europe's supposedly hyper-regulated employment
system. Far from taking a laissez-faire approach, "the U.S.
state has made a large and coercive intervention into the labor
market through the expansion of the legal system." An American
unemployment rate adjusted for imprisonment would rise by two
points, giving the U.S. a jobless ratio much closer to that of
European nations, where including inmates jobless count raises
the joblessness rate by a few tenths of a percentage point. Including
incarceration would especially boost the official Black male unemployment
rate, which Western estimates, counting prison, at nearly 39 percent
during the mid-1990s. If you factor in incarceration, Western
and his colleague Becky Petit find, there was "no enduring
recovery in the employment of young Black high-school drop-outs"
during the long Clinton boom.
By artificially reducing both aggregate and racially specific
unemployment rates, mass incarceration makes it easier for the
majority culture to continue to ignore the urban ghettoes that
live on beneath official rhetoric about "opportunity"
being generated by "free markets." It facilitates the
elimination of honest discussion of America's deep and inseparably
linked inequalities of race and class from the nation's public
discourse. It encourages and enables a "new," subtler
racism in an age when open, public displays of bigotry have been
Relying heavily on long-standing American opportunity myths
and standard class ideology, this new racism blames inner-city
minorities for their own "failure" to match white performance
in a supposedly now free, meritorious, color-blind society. Whites
who believe, thanks partly to the decline of explicit public racism,
that racial barriers have been lifted in the United States think
that people of color who do not "succeed" fall short
because of choices they made and/or because of inherent cultural
or even biological limitations. "As white America sees it,"
write Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs Brown in their disturbing
By The Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the
Reality of Race (2000), "every effort has been made to welcome
Blacks into the American mainstream, and now they're on their
own... 'We got the message; we made the corrections-get on with
The ultimate policy irony at the heart of America's passion
for prisons is summarized in the phrase correctional Kenynesianism.
The prison construction boom, fed by the rising "market"
of Black offenders, is an often remarkable job and tax-base creator
and local economic multiplier for predominantly white "down"
or "up" state communities that are generally removed
from urban minority concentrations. Those communities, themselves
often recently hollowed-out by the de-industrializing and family
farm-destroying gales of the "free market" system, have
become part of a prison-industrial lobby that presses for harsher
sentences and tougher laws, seeking to protect and expand their
economic base even as crime rates continue to fall. With good
reason: prison-building boom serves as what Ladipo calls "a
latter-day Keynesian infrastuctural investment program for [often]
blight-struck communities.... Indeed, it has been phenomenally
successful in terms of creating relatively secure, decent paid,
and often unionized jobs." According to Todd Clear, the negative
labor market effects of mass incarceration on black communities
are probably minor "compared to the economic relocation of
Black to white communities that mass incarceration entails.
As Clear explains in cool and candid terms: "Each prisoner
represents an economic asset that has been removed from that community
and placed elsewhere. As an economic being, the person would spend
money at or near his or her area of residence-typically, an inner
city. Imprisonment displaces that economic activity: Instead of
buying snacks in a local deli, the prisoner makes those purchases
in a prison commissary. The removal may represent a loss of economic
value to the home community, but it is a boon to the prison community.
Each prisoner represents as much as $25,000 in income for the
community in which the prison is located, not to mention the value
of constructing the prison facility in the first place. This can
be a massive transfer of value: A young male worth a few thousand
dollars of support to children and local purchases is transformed
into a $25,000 financial asset to a rural prison community. The
economy of the rural community is artificially amplified, the
local city economy artificially deflated."
Consistent with this a recent Chicago Tribune story bears
the perverse title "Towns Put Dreams in Prisons." In
downstate Hoopeston, Illinois, the Tribune reports, there is "talk
of the mothballed canneries that once made this a boom town and
whether any of that bustling spirit might return if the Illinois
Department of Corrections comes to town." "You don't
like to think about incarceration," Hoopeston's Mayor told
the Tribune, "but this is an opportunity for Hoopeston. We've
been plagued by plant closings." Ault's willingness to enter
the prison sweepstakes was validated by another small town mayor,
Andy Hutchens of Ina, Illinois. According to the Tribune, in a
passage that reminds us to include diversion of tax revenue among
the ways that mass incarceration steals wealth from the inner
city: "Before [Ina's] prison was built, the city took in
just $17,000 a year in motor fuel tax revenue. Now the figure
is more like $72,000. Last year'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, Hutchens said."
"It really figures out this way. This little town of
450 people is getting the tax money of a town of 2,700,"
Hutchens said, and then added with a grin, "And those people
in that prison can't vote me out of office."
According to "get-tough on crime" politicians and
policy-makers, "prison works": it reduces crime rates.
But that intuitively seductive argument, which cites the declining
federal crime index of the 1990s as its primary evidence, cannot
explain why crime rates increased in the 1970s and the late 1980s
while prison rates grew at the same rate as they did in the 1990s.
It ignores the fact that drug convictions do not figure into the
federal index-a crucial omission since incarceration rates are
strongly fed by the "war on drugs." It ignores the strong
possibility that other factors, including the record-length economic
expansion of the 1990s, provide better explanations than mass
incarceration for declining official crime. It is embarrassed,
finally, by comparative international data. U.S. citizens are
just as likely to be victimized by crime as citizens in European
countries who jail and imprison relatively tiny percentages of
their population because they view prisons as fundamentally criminogenic-as
breeders of crime. Americans are far more likely than their low-incarceration
European counterparts to be victimized by rape, murder, robbery,
and violent assault in general.
Clear has discovered three "crime-enhancing effects of
prison" on impoverished urban communities. First, the rampant
arrest and incarceration of inner-city youth for drug crimes creates
an ironic "replacement effect" that "cancels out
the crime-prevention benefits of incapacitation." In the
face of a stable demand for illegal substances, mass arrest and
incarceration "creates job openings in the drug delivery
enterprise and allows for an ever-broadening recruitment of citizens
into the illegal trade." Modern criminal justice practice
is often blind to this phenomenon, Clear argued, because its "atomistic"
understanding of criminal behavior as purely individual behavior
obscures the group basis of much illegal inner-city activity.
Second, mass incarceration deepens the presence of negative "social
factors" that contribute to "criminality" in minority
communities: broken families, inequality, poverty, alienation,
and social disorder. Third, mass incarceration ironically undercuts
the deterrent power of prison.
"As more people acquire a grounded knowledge of prison
life," Clear learned, "the power of prison to deter
crime through fear is diminished." Thus, Newsweek reporter
Ellis Cose noted last year that prison has "become so routine"
in some neighborhoods "that going in can be an opportunity
for reconnecting with friends." A drug-dealer from Maryland
told Cose of his "panic on conviction. Having heard horror
stories about young men abused inside, he fretted about how he
would fend off attacks.
Once behind bars, he discovered that the population consisted
largely of buddies from the hood. Instead of something to fear,
prison 'was like a big camp."'
Clear and fellow criminologist Dina Rose think that certain
U. S. communities have reached what they see as a curious criminal
justice "tipping point"-the locus at which repressive
state policies actually drive up crime rates. When 1 percent or
more of a neighborhood's residents are imprisoned per year, they
theorize, mass incarceration incapacitates neighborhood social
networks to the point where they can no longer keep crime under
control. But, of course, the communities "tipped" by
criminal justice policies are located in a relatively small number
of minority-based inner-city zip codes. The record 600,000 offenders
released from prison last year "return," notes the New
York Times, "largely to poor neighborhoods of large cities."
Part of the Tangle
It is no simple matter to determine the precise extent to
which mass incarceration is exacerbating the deep socio-economic
and related cultural and political traumas that already plague
inner-city communities and help explain disproportionate Black
"criminality," arrest, and incarceration in the first
place. Still, it is undeniable that the race to incarcerate is
having a profoundly negative effect on Black communities. Equally
undeniable is the fact that Black incarceration rates reflect
deep racial bias in the criminal justice system and the broader
society. Do the cheerleaders of "get tough" crime and
sentencing policy really believe that African-Americans deserve
to suffer so disproportionately at the hands of the criminal justice
system? There is a vast literature showing that structural, institutional,
and cultural racism and severe segregation by race and class are
leading causes of inner-city crime. Another considerable body
of literature shows that Blacks are victims of racial bias at
every level of the criminal justice system-from stop, frisk, and
arrest to prosecution, sentencing, release, and execution. These
disparities give legitimacy to the movement of ex-offender groups
for the expungement of criminal and prison records for many nonviolent
offenses, especially in cases where ex-convicts have shown an
earnest desire to "go straight." Further and deeper
remedies will be required. These include a moratorium on new prison
construction (to stop the insidious, self-replicating expansion
of the prison-industrial complex), the repeal of laws that deny
voting rights to felons and ex-felons, amnesty and release for
most inmates convicted of non-violent crimes de-criminalization
of narcotics, the repeal of the "war on drugs" at home
and abroad, revision of state and federal sentencing and local
"zero tolerance" practices and ordinances, abolition
of racial, ethnic, and class profiling in police practice, and
the outlawing of private, for-profit prisons and other economic
activities that derive investment gain from mass incarceration.
Activists and policy makers should call and make plans for
a criminal- to-social-justice "peace dividend": the
large-scale transfer of funds spent on mass arrest, surveillance,
and incarceration into such policy areas as drug treatment, job-training,
transitional services for ex-offenders, and public education regarding
the employment potential of ex-offenders. They should call and
make plans for the diversion of criminal justice resources from
"crime in the streets" (i.e., the harassment and imprisonment
of lower-class and inner-city people) to serious engagement with
under-sentenced "crime in the suites." More broadly,
they should seek a general redistribution of resources from privileged
and often fantastically wealthy persons to those most penalized
from birth by America's long and intertwined history of inherited
class and race privilege.
America's expanding prison, probation, and parole populations
are recruited especially from what leading slavery reparations
advocate Randall Robinson calls "the millions of African-Americans
bottom-mired in urban hells by the savage time-release social
debilitations of American slavery." The ultimate solutions
lay, perhaps, beyond the parameters of the existing politic-economic
order. "Capitalism," Eugene Debs argued in 1920, "needs
and must have the prison to protect itself from the [lower-class]
criminals it has created." But the examples of Western Europe
and Canada, where policy makers prefer prevention and rehabilitation
through more social-democratic approaches, show that mass incarceration
is hardly an inevitable product of capitalism per se. Nothing
can excuse policymakers and activists from the responsibility
to end racist criminal justice practices that are significantly
exacerbating the difficulties faced by the nation's most truly
and intractably disadvantaged. More then merely a symptom of the
tangled mess of problems that create, sustain, and deepen America's
savage patterns of class and race inequality, mass incarceration
has become a central part of the mess. For these and other reasons,
it will be an especially worthy target for creative, democratic
protest and policy formation in the new millennium.
Paul Street is research director at the Chicago Urban League.
His articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in In These Times,
Z Magazine, Monthly Review, Dissent, Journal of Social History,
Mid-America, and the Journal of American Ethnic History.