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.”