Dr. Boyce Watkins: Mass Incarceration Leading to a Mental Health Crisis Among Black Men and Families

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by Dr Boyce Watkins

A report released by the Meharry Medical College School of Medicine discusses the devastating impact that mass incarceration has had on our society.  The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, is one of the most thorough examinations of an epidemic that has yet to be properly confronted by any of us.  The study’s authors argue that the billions of dollars being spent keeping non-violent offenders behind bars would be better spent on education and rehabilitation.

“Instead of getting health care and education from civil society, African American males are being funneled into the prison system. Much of this costly practice could be avoided in the long-term by transferring funds away from prisons and into education,” says Dr. William D Richie, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Meharry Medical College, lead author of the paper.

The study’s authors note that 60% of all incarcerations are due to non-violent, drug-related crimes.   They also mention that the cost of substance abuse in the United States is as high as half a trillion dollars per year.

“Spending money on prevention and intervention of substance abuse treatment programs will yield better results than spending on correctional facilities,” the authors claim in the study.

Finally, the authors claim that while crime rates have declined over the last 20 years, incarceration rates have climbed through the roof. The inmates occupying these jail cells are disproportionately black, a powerful reflection of the persistent sting of racial inequality.  In fact, the black male incarceration rate has jumped by 500% between 1986 the 2004, largely due to the Sentencing Reform Act, which created the 100-t0-1 crack-to-powder sentencing disparity, leading to sentences that were incredibly long for tens of thousands of defendants, most of whom were black.  This law was probably one of the most Draconian and racist pieces of legislation to be passed in the history of the United States.  The authors state that, even for those who don’t abuse drugs before going to prison, the likelihood of substance abuse after prison goes up dramatically.

The mass incarceration epidemic affects all of us, even those who haven’t gone to prison: It affects the child who grows up without  a father who has been incarcerated, the children who are bullied by that child at school, the woman seeking a husband who can’t find a good man to marry, the list goes on and on.  When so many of our men are marginalized and incarcerated, this has a powerful effect on the sociological ecosystem of the black community, the same way an economy crumbles when a few large companies go bankrupt.

I know the impact of mental illness from the prison system all-too well.   My uncle was an older brother figure for me until he died in 2012.   I looked up to him, and I cried every time he went to jail.   The first time he went to prison, he was barely 18 years old.  Whatever happened to him behind bars affected him so deeply that he spent the next 30 years living inside a bottle trying to drown out whatever nightmares our society had injected into his psyche.   As a result of his mental illness, his son occupied the same jail cell as his father just a few years later.  Our prisons don’t make our society safer, they simply create more criminals in the long-run.

The worst thing about the crack-to-powder disparity (which was slightly mitigated by the Fair Sentencing Act, which actually isn’t fair at all with an 18-to-1 disparity) is that there are still tens of thousands of Americans who remain incarcerated as a result of the old laws that have been taken off the books.  When the law was changed, inmates were not re-sentenced, which means that these men and women have been unable to return home to their families because they still do not have the appropriate sentence as determined by the new law.   This is nothing short of criminal and we should address this issue immediately.  It’s impossible to argue that it makes sense to leave people in prison under sentencing laws that are now extinct.

The point here is that we cannot look at the holocaust of mass incarceration as someone else’s problem or something that just affects criminals.  The punishment should fit the crime, and when every study imaginable says that black people are more likely to go to jail for the same crimes, this means that Jim Crow is alive and well.  Something must be done at the grassroots, state and federal levels.  We cannot allow this epidemic to exist any longer.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and author of “The 8 Principles of Black Male Empowerment.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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21 Responses to Dr. Boyce Watkins: Mass Incarceration Leading to a Mental Health Crisis Among Black Men and Families

  1. We, Black people, have to stop whining and try to find causes and solutions to high employment and violence in our Black communities. There several factors. First we have to graduate from high school. That means those without high school should try to get GED. I have met very bright Black boys and girls, but they lack GED. Employers first ask if you have 12 year degree. Second we have to stop hooliganism i.e. baggy pants showing underwear. No regular employer would hire somebody with baggy pants, a reflection of bad behavior – shop lifting and killing one another. We need more police officers. Please get money from President Obama now before he leaves office in 2016. After the recent 26 people gunned down at the school, Republicans now realize gun violence is not Black neighborhoods problem alone but is in White and elite neighborhoods. Black churches have to be involved too. They can be guiding lights to reduce violence and reduce achievement gap. I will be writing a grant application to that effect. Third, we have to be committed to find employment. This is despite some of us have criminal records. There are jobs that do not inhibit you from employment despite our criminal records: highway construction, drywall painting, carpentry, brick layers, trucking, delivery jobs, assembly work, high rise construction etc. Use those muscles to get money. Every time I drive, I see only Whites and Mexicans working in street repairs. Where are Blacks? They don’t have the skills! We should get training at 2 year colleges – six months graduation. President Obama has grants and loans for you. Now if we are denied jobs we have to find why. Sue the employers. However, we Blacks have to be careful with federal judges now – I mean federal judges. Some federal judges are republicans and are now turning racists. They are upset President Obama was re-elected. These racist judges are avenging themselves by denying blacks justice. So even if you sue, these judges will defend employers. Please read discrimination opinions from 7th circuit. You will be amazed how republican judges are. Just horrible. They usually side with employers, many times knowingly. We used to hear such judges’ behavior in federal courts in Texas. We never expected such behavior to happen in our backyard federal court of Western District of Wisconsin. One judge in federal court district conducted a Kangaroo hearing – denying a Black man right to ask his opponent questions. Some republican judges were raised to believe Blacks were intellectually inferior to Whites. We have to make sure we get justice in courts. Also watch out our republican governors. For instance Walker of Wisconsin doesn’t want Blacks to sue employers. In fact the governor is trying to get rid of state department that investigates discrimination complaints. So in Wisconsin you can be denied a job and there is nowhere to whine. The Wisconsin court system is still works – so far. Reminder – Please be careful who you have federal judges. If you have a case in federal court, investigate if the judge is a republican and fire him or her within 10 days of filing your case. I did once and therefore you can do so.

    Pastori Balele
    February 1, 2013 at 6:43 pm
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    • Why are you blaming Repubs when the prison issue is bi-parisan. Anyone involved with federal judges are in trouble I don’t care what color you are or what side of the aisle. Do you really think the Mandatory Minimum Sentencing law is only affecting Blacks. My White grandson shares a cell with a Black guy. Looks like to me their sharing equally in the experience. I was disappointed that Blacks didn’t use their power in the second election to get Obama to end this drug war as he promised to do when he ran the first time.He had total power for two years and could have taken care of this inhumane condition in America. He still has control of the congress so there is nothing stopping him from changing this except he doesn’t have to.I know how hard it is to get White people to comprehend not everyone in prison is a serial killer or rapist but I’m trying. Blacks and Whites need to work together on this problem. Playing the race card isn’t going to change a thing. We need a petition with 100,000 names on it and thats not easy. We need to hold our politicians feet to the fire. My grandson was convicted by a Black judge. Do you think I’m holding him responsible for the 20yr sentence because he is Black and my grandson White? I understood this judge was handed a predetermined sentence.

      Joyce
      February 4, 2013 at 3:11 am
      Reply

    • Updated slavery and genocide is in full effect

      Peter D. Slaughter
      February 6, 2013 at 5:54 am
      Reply

  2. I can relate to that because I have family members who are currently serving time and have been in and out of correctional facilities for the past 20+ years. When they get out there are no jobs and if they get a job they owe child support and they don’t have enough money to live on so the cycle repeats itself. They start hustling and wind up behind bars again. They made a mistake when they were in their early 20′s and never got back on the right track. I live in an area where there are no programs to offer education and jobs that would help rehabiltate them and make it possible for them to make a living, so they do what they do best. I am not making excuses for them but everybody deserves a second chance and once they violate the law in most cases there are no second chances. The system offers none or very little assistance in helping them with education and job training and this makes it hard for them to get back on the right path. In other words they make it next to impossible for ex-cons to rehabilitate so they can fill up their jails and prisons.

    R. Parker
    February 1, 2013 at 8:03 pm
    Reply

    • thank you Parker for your comment. It is so true. Have you ever thought about writing a book?
      Peace

      Earline Bentley
      February 2, 2013 at 4:22 pm
      Reply

    • Parker…I so agree with all that you have said. I’m going through this with my son. He looks for work daily but I’m beginning to see his frustration. Right now, he is fortunate he has a family he can live with, but I know he wants more than that and I am so worried for him…for us.

      Anita
      February 6, 2013 at 1:03 am
      Reply

  3. Appears to me that the Mass Mental Illness seems to be happening in the White community, yes, the young Black men are killing each other over drugs but in the White community they are doing mass killings of innoncent children and anyone that is in the way. I have relatives that have been in the jails & prisons also, but guess what, they did not want a job when they got out nor did they want to go to school and we have programs for ex-felons, etc., once again “you have to want to do better.” You have to want to stay away from the folks that you hung out with because you can be sure, they are just waiting for you to get out so you can continue where you left off. I am afraid this is going to be an ongoing problem in the Black community due to all the babies these fools are spreading around from woman to woman, these young people will go up to follow in their fathers footsteps, it is like welfare, from generation to generation.

    Ann G.
    February 1, 2013 at 8:26 pm
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    • Did you happen to notice the crazy wild eyes on those white men that were killing? They were stone lunatics. Our mental institutions have been closed for decades and our prisons are our mental institutions.Families have no where to turn when they have someone mentally gone and once they commit a crime they are carted off to prison.

      Our parole laws are set up for failure. The whole system needs revamped and to be honest I don’t think anyone in office is smart enough to do it.

      Black men aren’t the only ones that are having babies and not raising them. I have 2 G grandkids that are fatherless. I know a slew of white guys that have gone to prison and left kids behind.The kids cry for their dad and I hate it.

      Joyce
      February 4, 2013 at 3:28 am
      Reply

  4. All persons in this country are responsible for its situation and its eventual demise.We have collectively destroyed our system of government with greed lust and the rest of the seven deadly sins.I carried a gouge for years believing the white man is the cause of my agony.That was until i started to study and talk to people that study our history I am saddened by not only our participation,but the continuing in humane treatment that has become common place and fair seeming.Everyone of us are directly involved with the everyday functioning of our society that watch,and do nothing or participate in evil,let individuals do whatever if there’s a financial gain regardless of the consequences it has for others.Watch our servants turn our country into the debtor country of the world,because we can get more than our share regardless of how many have to die to continue living this live style,which is over.Kill and do the unimaginable to the rest of the world without saying anything about it.Our entire population is experiencing ab emotional breakdown.Those in jail and those of us who have the illusion of freedom.Our attitude as a people is reminiscent of Patty Hearst,we all suffer from Stockholm syndrome,with the worst yet to come.Please if it seem i left the point check history and see how far we have come from our original principals and continue on the same path,doing the same things and guess what,we will get the same results.This mental health crisis is society wide and we are all in need of therapy.And that goes for all of the social constructs,black,white,Latino.etc……………

    Charles
    February 1, 2013 at 10:21 pm
    Reply

  5. Maybe if kids had a better example than this as a mother, they wouldn’t end up in jail. Look at what she’s teaching her kids. http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=e06_1359380173

    Kerri
    February 2, 2013 at 4:21 am
    Reply

  6. The length of the individual comments denotes frustration and looking for answers. The poor education provided across this Nation and diluted parental/guardian responsibilities need to be strengthen. The clergy has failed and children/youth attend churches mostly for funerals. Our children live in fear and try to protect themselves by hurting others. Insead of the Hip Hop Genre realizing that its roots come from centuries of struggle, it is ignored as back then we united to achieve triumph over adversities. Until we know who we are, really know it, we will remain haters and waiters.

    Haywood Fennell, Sr.
    February 2, 2013 at 8:58 am
    Reply

  7. The white devils’ Prison Industrial Complex needs to be immediately, acutely, and dramatically reformed to ensure that this country discontinues the racist practice of having a system that serves as a pipeline for our African-American men to go from bad, ineffective schools to prison! The white devils should free thousands of African American people who are disproportionately incarcerated as a result of the old laws that have been taken off the books. When the law was changed, inmates sentenced under the old much more racist laws should have been re-sentenced, but the white, evil devils have the power to keep our men and women in prison and jails around the country based on the old much more racist laws. Therefore, President Barack Obama must use the power of his office to provide immediate pardons to people who have committed minor, non-violent drug crimes, and other prisoners who have served many years in prison, but are now the real victims of cruel and unusual punishment as confinement to a prison cell has reached the point of diminishing returns. White males are using cruelty, fear, cowardice, intimidation, discrimination and acute disrespect to develop, expand and perpetuate the Prison Industrial Complex that is a modern day system of slavery! The whole white supremacists’ strategy is to use their power to destroy the African-American family and we appear powerless to stop it!
    Free Mumia Abu Jamal, who has been in prison too long for being charged with a crime while fighting to defend the members of our Community here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from the wrath of out of control police brutality under the rule of a dictatorial and tyrannical police chief! Our young men cannot remain on the path that has been erected for them by people who are working for their annihilation, destruction and extermination! I say to you again, “In the war for survival, our enemy must never be the only one fighting!” We must be as vigilant about forcing “The Revolution” in this country with the annihilation, destruction and extermination of the white devils enemy, and especially the white male devils, as the white devils are to maintaining the status quo of working for the annihilation, destruction and extermination of African-Americans!

    Nothing But The Truth!
    February 2, 2013 at 11:57 pm
    Reply

    • So who do you think I should hold responsible for my White grandson doing 20yrs for drugs and sentenced by a Black judge? It would probably be rational for me to get all racist and blame that Black judge but I comprehend the sentencing laws and understand that judge had no control over the guidelines he has to use.I hate to burst your bubble but this mass incarceration is bi-partisan and Black politicians as well as White politicians won’t deal with it. I know of three that are interested. Newt Gingrich,Pat Leahy and Chris Christie Not President Obama for some reason he gets a pass. Not one word from Obama or Romney on the war on drugs during the election. I tried to find a way to reach them but the lowly poors opinions don’t count. Your not alone in this struggle as its affecting White families the same as Blacks. It benefits unions to keep incarceration high as prisons provide union jobs and jobs create big money for the unions to use to buy politicians power. Union bosses visited the WH 400 times in the past 4 yrs. We are fighting a huge battle and if I can help Black guys its helping white guys. I too want all non violent drug sentences reduced and be switched to rehab. House arrest wouldn’t be a bad thing for these dads to be with their kids. We aren’t each others enemies we are on the same side.There is a lot of information on people that have been fighting this battle for decades long before it affected us,

      Joyce
      February 4, 2013 at 3:47 am
      Reply

  8. I absolutely know that Mass Incarceration is Leading to a Mental Health Crisis Among Black Men and Families! The white devils’ Prison Industrial Complex needs to be immediately, acutely, and dramatically reformed to ensure that this country discontinues the racist practice of having a system that serves as a pipeline for our African-American men to go from bad, ineffective schools to prison! Free Mumia Abu Jamal, who has been in prison too long for being charged with a crime while fighting to defend the members of our Community here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from the wrath of out of control police brutality under the rule of a dictatorial and tyrannical police chief! Our young men cannot remain on the path that has been erected for them by people who are working for their annihilation, destruction and extermination We must commit ourselves to the mission of making sure that the Mass Incarceration Leading to a Mental Health Crisis among Black Men and Families will simultaneously lead to an even greater Mental Health Crisis Among the white, male, evil devils and their Families! We must be as vigilant about forcing “The Revolution” in this country with the annihilation, destruction and extermination of the white devils enemy, and especially the white male devils, as the white devils are to maintaining the status quo of working for the annihilation, destruction and extermination of African-Americans! ! I say to you again, “In the war for survival, our enemy must never be the only one fighting!” We must always be our enemy’s enemy, always!!!

    Nothing But The Truth!
    February 3, 2013 at 12:38 am
    Reply

  9. So whats the big deal? Are we saying don’t lock them up?

    I know the argument, “they didn’t do it, the man lock them up for no reason”

    Young black men think there’s no consequence to going to prison, they act like it’s a badge of honor, it’s not, 40 years later a simple computer search will revel the conviction. This will hamper them from getting a job even if they have turn around their life and are more than qualified for the job.

    If your son goes to jail he will pay for it the rest of his life!
    He will never be all that he can or should be!

    James Johnson
    February 3, 2013 at 5:14 pm
    Reply

  10. g these fools need to realize crawl before you walk but you got rap videos telling the opposite.also they were allowed to be stupid by parents,the average single mom does not have any books to read not even a comic book her her house .

    satch
    February 4, 2013 at 6:08 am
    Reply

  11. It benefits unions to keep incarceration high as prisons provide union jobs and jobs create big money for the unions to use to buy politicians power. Union bosses visited the WH 400

    wrong as HE– the unions are in a pitched battle with corporate america.
    which union ?maybe jail guard IAM ,UAW and the rest have their own folks issues to deal with

    satch
    February 4, 2013 at 6:11 am
    Reply

  12. I want to agree with the poster who said that these long responses show the level of frustration that this subject provokes. I am impressed with the woman and the NJ warden (see below) who allowed prisoners to connect with their daughters via a father-daughter dance. A little movement can turn into a big movement…are there any more suggestion and solutions to the problem? I want to be part of that.

    http://www.nj.com/hudson/index.ssf/2011/06/photos_dancing_with_our_daught.html

    Rowena
    February 4, 2013 at 3:37 pm
    Reply

  13. This is not surprising. They know exactly what they are doing. This is just another part of an ongoing effort that really started back in the 60s, to create a permanent underclass that will never prosper and further dilute and demise the black race.

    DAJ
    February 6, 2013 at 3:30 am
    Reply

  14. This is just more genocide,eugenics,population control activity in relation to the death and dying of so many other black people.
    I wonder why do these other black people like to talk about some type of political solution or some political party going to stop it or solve it.
    Both parties are in on it and all the members of both parties more than likely have some stock investced with the private ran,white controlled and dominated some racist.
    It’s genocide,plain and simple wake up

    Peter D. Slaughter
    February 6, 2013 at 5:51 am
    Reply

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