Shamika Wilson-Johnson’s husband is serving a life sentence in a Southern California prison. He is 54 years old and has been incarcerated for nearly 30 years. He has thyroid cancer and fused vertebrae that confine him to a wheelchair for long periods, Wilson-Johnson told me. Earlier this month he was denied parole for the fourth time since 2006. Despite his disability, the parole board deemed him at moderate risk for violent behavior. So Wilson-Johnson, who is 35 and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, will continue to scrape together the funds—as much as $1,000—for car rental and a hotel stay so that she and her two children, ages 4 and 7, can travel the 10 hours south to visit him.
“We were all so hopeful,” Wilson-Johnson said of the recent parole hearing. “It’s very depressing, not only for him but for the family.”
Wilson-Johnson is one of nearly 1,100 people interviewed for a report released this week about the long-term financial and emotional costs of incarceration. Unlike most discussions of the costs of prisons, which tend to frame the issue in terms of the burden to taxpayers, this latest effort surveyed formerly incarcerated people and family members of those serving time to better understand how prison impoverishes families that are often already on the edge. It’s the result of collaboration involving two dozen organizations around the country that respond to the effects of mass incarceration and challenge the policies that have created the current crisis.
The report, called Who Pays?: The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, happens to have dropped the same week as the latest Atlantic cover story from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. The exhaustive, nine-chapter article focuses on what Coates calls “the gray wastes,” the prisons and jails where Wilson-Johnson’s husband and 2.2 million other Americans are warehoused and banished, as he writes, “beyond the promises and protections the government grants to its other citizens.” Those who eventually get out find it hard to reintegrate into society. Barriers to employment, affordable housing, education and public benefits such as food stamps are everywhere, as the report details:
- 79 percent of those surveyed reported being ineligible for or denied housing because of their own or a loved one’s record.
- Two-thirds of those interviewed said they wanted to return to school once released, but fewer than a third were able to continue with education or training.
- Three-fourths said their experience trying to find work was very difficult or nearly impossible. A quarter was employed five years after release, and just 40 percent were employed full-time five years after release.
- More than one in five respondents said they were denied public assistance such as welfare benefits or food stamps post-release.
Reading the report and the article side by side offers both statistics and intricate storytelling about human suffering, both the history that got us into this mess and suggestions—incremental as well as visionary— about how to get out of it. Coates’ reporting places a story like Wilson-Johnson’s in a national context. In one section, he travels to Maryland, where 15 percent of the state’s lifers—the largest percentage in the country — committed their crimes as juveniles. There, the average age of lifers who have been recommended for but denied release is 60. He writes, “These men and women are past the age of ‘criminal menopause,’ as some put it, and most pose no threat to their community.”
But the goal of incarceration isn’t to keep communities safe, a point that prison abolitionists have been arguing for years. Its true goal is to make invisible those who would be better served by programs that directly address their mental illness, illiteracy, addiction or poverty. Even opportunities for self-improvement that once existed in prison, such as Pell grants that allowed incarcerated people to take college courses, have vanished. In 1994, Congress voted to end prisoners’ eligibility, though they’d only made up 1 percent of the grant’s recipients, according to the report.
Coates makes the case that punishment replaced rehabilitation as the primary goal of incarceration sometime in the 1970s, but that the groundwork for convincing the American public that black people are inherently criminal and deserving of unrelenting, harsh punishment was laid in the 18th century and strengthened after the Civil War, when those who had benefited from slavery lost any incentive to protect black bodies and the labor they produced. (Kali Akuno writing for Counterpunch argued something similar recently.) To write about mass incarceration– the web of policies and cultural forces that have allowed the US prison and jail population to increase sevenfold from 1970 to today despite ups and downs in crime rates—is to write about the contemporary black experience, Coates explains: “The Gray Wastes draw from the most socioeconomically unfortunate among us, and thus take particular interest in those who are black.” And later, when explaining the role of structural racism and the “compounded deprivation” that black Americans face, he writes:
“The blacks incarcerated in this country are not like the majority of Americans. They do not merely hail from poor communities—they hail from communities that have been imperiled across both the deep and immediate past, and continue to be imperiled today. Peril is generational for black people in America—and incarceration is our current mechanism for ensuring that the peril continues.”
This idea of generational peril is familiar to Wilson-Johnson, whose husband is incarcerated and who is profiled in the report. “We have incarceration throughout the family: My grandfather, my great-grandfather, my father, uncles, cousins. It’s generational,” she told me. “If society is not going to give you the resources to do better, typically you won’t do better. It’s just a cycle.”
Women like Wilson-Johnson bear both the emotional and financial costs of overincarceration. According to the report, two in five black women are related to someone who’s locked up. From the time a loved one goes into the system until the time they get out and beyond, these women disproportionately shoulder the costs of incarceration. Eighty-three percent of those responsible for court-related costs such as attorney’s fees, bail and restitution to victims are women, according to the Who Pays? report. Women also overwhelmingly cover the cost of maintaining contact once someone’s sent away, such as paying for phone calls and visits. Of the family members surveyed who covered such costs, 87 percent were women.
Thankfully, Coates doesn’t reinforce the commonly held idea that men serve time while women suffer a kind of collateral damage, affected by mass incarceration as family members but not themselves sent to the gray wastes. He talks to a woman in Detroit named Tonya who served 18 years for a gun and murder charge. Her story illustrates the isolation those in prison often endure while locked up, regardless of sex. She tells Coates, “First I would get one [visit] like every four months. And then I wouldn’t get none for like maybe a year. You know, because it was too far away. And I started to have losses. I lost my mom, my brothers.… So it was hard, you know, for me to get visits.”
Some may take Coates’ article and the report released by a coalition of social justice non-profits as simply the latest additions to a large body of literature that lays out what many of us already know: that government officials have long used prisons a way to disappear poor and black people. That rather than being “broken,” the system is working just as it was intended to—as a method of social control and as a lazy and dehumanizing way to avoid addressing longstanding social problems. But one thing about the current moment could ensure that these offerings outlast this week’s news cycle: the upcoming presidential election.
As Coates points out, Democrats have been as much to blame for promoting policies that led to overincarceration as Republicans. We may credit Nixon and the Southern Strategy with exploiting beliefs about inherent black criminality into the latter part of the 20th century, but Democrats such as Joe Biden, Ann Richards and Mario Cuomo proudly supported “tough on crime” and drug war policies in the 1990s. Coates makes the case that very little of this was based on naïveté or ignorance. He writes, “Many Democrats knew exactly what they were doing—playing on fear for political gain—and did it anyway.”
Black Lives Matter organizers have already identified this as a weak spot for the party many assume is closely aligned with black communities’ interests. During an August campaign stop in New Hampshire, activists questioned Hillary Clinton about her role in passing the 1994 crime bill. In July, Black Lives Matter activists at Netroots Nation questioned Martin O’Malley, a Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland governor who consistently refused to grant parole to eligible lifers recommended for early release. After Black Lives Matter protestors shut down his campaign appearance in Seattle, Bernie Sanders within days released a racial justice platform that largely speaks to the failings of the criminal justice system. Perhaps now’s the time to demand that Democrats pay for past sins.
Yes, there is a growing bipartisan interest in reducing prison populations, which Coates mentions. But much of the associated rhetoric focuses on the role of prisons in ballooning state budgets and frustrating fiscal conservatives. Coates and the authors of Who Pays? argue that the human costs should be enough on their own to motivate us toward a solution.