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.