Fiction: Prison only has an impact on your life while you are in prison.
Reality: Research shows the long-lasting and far-reaching impacts of incarceration. The Pew Charitable Trusts has documented the economic costs of incarceration to people who have been incarcerated, their families, and their children. Pew’s 2010 “Collateral Costs” report found “that former inmates work fewer weeks each year, earn less money and have limited upward mobility” (p. 3). According to Political Research Associates, “A first-time arrest for being convicted of a property crime leads to a 7% decline in income.”
The incarceration of a parent hurts children financially and educationally. The “Collateral Costs” report shows that “Children with fathers who have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than other children to be expelled or suspended from school.” The incarceration of a father lowers a family’s income. Education and parental income are predictors of children’s later economic mobility. The negative impact of parental incarceration on both of these factors indicates that children likely will pay the price of a parent’s incarceration throughout their adult lives.
In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander (2010) argues that the long-term effects of incarceration have created a new racial caste system in the United States. She explains that once someone has been convicted of a felony, he/she faces housing discrimination, employment discrimination, is denied the right to vote, is denied educational opportunities, is denied food stamps and other public benefits, and is excluded from jury service. Similar to the way Jim Crow laws operated, incarceration legalizes a host of discriminatory practices against people who have been incarcerated, the vast majority of whom are people of color.
Fiction: African Americans commit more drug offenses.
Reality: Research consistently shows that whites are more likely to use drugs than are African Americans:
• African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population and 13% of drug users. Yet, African Americans make up 35% of drug arrests, 55% of drug convictions, and 74% of those sentenced to prison for drugs.
• “Approximately 2/3 of crack users are white or Hispanic, yet the vast majority of persons convicted of possession in federal courts in 1994 were African American.”
• In their book Dorm Room Drug Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class, A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold (2009) report the findings of their 6-year ethnographic study of student drug dealers at a private university in Southern California. Their main conclusion is that race and class privilege allow these young, white, middle- and upper-class men and women to deal drugs without any threat of interference or punishment from campus security or law enforcement. Because these dorm-room dealers do not fit the stereotype of the young, male, African-American inner-city drug dealer, Mohamed and Fritsvold dub them “anti-targets” of the War on Drugs. As such, these privileged students’ illegal actions are overlooked – quite a contrast to the War on Drugs’ targeting of poor communities of color.
• Focusing on Illinois, Chicago Metropolis 2020’s 2006 Crime and Justice Index found that although whites make up 70% of those using illegal drugs, 80% of those imprisoned for drug crimes are people of color. The report also notes that in 2000, Human Rights Watch singled out Illinois for “having the highest incarceration rate of Black male drug offenders of any state” (p. 21).
The disproportionate arrest, conviction, and incarceration of African Americans are the result of increased policing in African-American communities, mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug offenses, and racist stereotypes, not the disproportionate use of drugs by African Americans.
Fiction: Poor people commit crimes so they can live off the state
Reality: Incarceration does not provide people with a living. In fact, we know the harmful effects that incarceration has on people while they are incarcerated and long after they are released. While incarcerated, many prisoners hope for the opportunity to work. For those who are “lucky” enough to have a job while incarcerated, the pay they receive is nothing short of exploitative. There is a range of pay that prisoners receive that varies based on location and type of job. The average of the minimum wages that prisoners were paid by the states for non-industry work is $0.93 per day. The average of the maximum wages is $4.73 per day. The lowest reported wage for prisoners working in private industry is $0.16 per day. This is hardly making a living.
Additionally, while incarcerated, people’s work histories are interrupted, as are their educational opportunities. This disruption creates a significant barrier to finding employment upon release from jail or prison. It is incredibly difficult to secure employment if you have any type of criminal record, even just an arrest. Employers are allowed to ask about your criminal history and legally can discriminate against you because of it. A criminal history also creates barriers to education. According to First Defense Legal Aid: “Students convicted of possession of a controlled substance may not get federal financial aid for 1 year after the 1st offense, 2 years after the 2nd offense, and forever after the 3rd offense. Students convicted of the sale of a controlled substance may not get federal financial aid for 2 years after the 1st offense and forever after the 2nd offense.”
Furthermore, people who have a felony conviction are not able to receive food stamps or cash assistance through public aid in many states. We disagree with the stereotype that people want to be on public aid or live in public housing rather than be self-sufficient. However, even if this stereotype was true, committing crimes and acquiring a criminal record would prevent an individual from “living off the state” in terms of being able to access public assistance. Given incarceration’s negative impact on education, employment, and access to public assistance, it’s hard to see how anyone would interpret incarceration as a viable way to “live off the state.”
Fiction: “Tough on crime” policies act as a deterrent to crime.
Reality: There is no evidence that building more prisons and incarcerating more people deter crime. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, crime rates actually were decreasing. And yet, we decided to start incarcerating more and more people. Specifically, when President Regan announced the War on Drugs in 1982, illegal drug use was on the decline. Since that time, the U.S. incarceration rate has increased because of policy changes, not because of the crime rate.
Many experts have concluded that prisons do not deter crime. Rather, social and economic opportunities have the most meaningful impact on whether people commit crimes. In fact, Michelle Alexander reports that shortly before the prison boom began in the United States, respected criminal justice researchers and experts warned against incarcerating more people. “[T]he National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals…issued a recommendation in 1973 that ‘no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed’…based on their finding that ‘the prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it’” (Alexander 2010: 8).
Fiction: It is cheaper to incarcerate people than to provide alternative treatment/responses.
Reality: It costs far more to incarcerate people, youth or adults, than to provide them with education. As First Defense Legal Aid shows, comparing the cost of incarceration to the cost of education is striking. It costs $78,000 to incarcerate a youth and $24,971 to incarcerate an adult for one year in Illinois. The yearly cost of in-state tuition and fees at the University of Illinois is $16,200; the yearly per-student spending by Chicago Public Schools is $10,500; and the yearly in-district tuition and fees at City Colleges of Chicago is $2,900. Given these figures, it is not surprising that Chicago Metropolis 2020 found that “Imprisoning those convicted of non-violent drug offenses costs Illinois taxpayers an estimated $240 million a year” (p. 5). Perhaps more surprising, though, is their finding that Illinois spending on corrections increased four time faster than spending on higher education between 1990 and 2004.
Fiction: There are appropriate, plentiful, and viable options to support individuals with mental illness.
Reality: The criminal justice system is our mental health system. It is the largest provider of mental health care in the United States. There are approximately 100,400 inpatient beds for the mentally ill in the United States, and conservative estimates are that there are 320,000 persons with severe mental illness in jail or prison on a given day. In some states, the ratio of incarceration to treatment is as high as 10 to 1 (Torrey 2010). Persons with mental disorder are 3.2 times more likely to be in jail or prison than in inpatient psychiatric care. This state of affairs has developed in the wake of the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities. Beginning in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1970s and 1980s, most public hospitals treating the mentally ill were closed. Between 1955 and 1980, the number of public hospital beds for the mentally ill was reduced by 75%. Although large savings were made closing the public hospitals, the budgets for community-based mental health treatment did not expand commensurate with the number of persons living in the community with mental illness. “State spending on mental health, adjusted for inflation and population growth, was 30 percent less in 1997 than in 1955” (Koyanagi 2007). With large numbers of persons with mental disorder in the community, often living on the street, police officers became street corner psychiatrists (Teplin 1984). Because appropriate treatment and diversions were not available, even officers with the best intentions were forced to arrest and process persons with clear and obvious mental illness – often for minor offenses.
Fiction: People plead insanity all the time.
Reality: Not really. According to PBS’s Frontline, “Although cases invoking the insanity defense often receive much media attention, the defense is actually not raised very often. Virtually all studies conclude that the insanity defense is raised in less than 1 percent of felony cases, and is successful in only a fraction of those. The vast majority of those that are successful are the result of a plea agreement in which the prosecution and the defense agree to a not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) plea. A major 1991 eight-state study commissioned by the National Institute of Mental Health found that less than 1 percent of county court cases involved the insanity defense, and that of those, only around one in four was successful. Ninety percent of the insanity defendants had been diagnosed with a mental illness. About half of the cases had been indicted for violent crimes; fifteen percent were murder cases.”
Yet, many people who are caught in the PIC have mental health issues. According to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, “Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates,” 1.25 million prison and jail inmates (more than half of all prison and jail inmates) have mental health problems. Human Rights Watch reports that jails and prisons are not equipped to provide mental health services, which results in people being under-treated or not being treated at all for mental illness.
Fiction: Police are our buddies.
Reality: Police do not provide safety to everyone. Many communities of color, as well as low-income and poor communities, suffer from over-policing. Research shows that police disproportionately target and arrest people of color. According to Political Research Associates:
• “Among persons over age 24, Blacks (11.2%) were significantly more likely to be pulled over while driving than Whites (8.9%).”
• “Blacks (5.2%) and Hispanics (4.2%) stopped by police while driving are more likely than Whites (2.6%) to be arrested.”
Furthermore, there are “Million Dollar Blocks,” which are city blocks where the state is spending $1,000,000 or more to incarcerate former residents or to supervise the formerly incarcerated.” There also is a long history of police brutality and oppression in communities of color. As a result, police are a sign of oppression rather than safety in many communities. For women and gender-non-conforming or queer people, especially those working in the sex trade, police can also represent the real risk of sexual harassment, violence or assault. Many people feel fear, rather than reassurance or safety, when they see the police.
Fiction: You have to be 18 to be charged with an adult offense.
Reality: States determine their own age of adulthood. According to a recent New York Times article, “Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have already set the age of adult criminal responsibility at 18. Eleven states have set the age at 17. New York and North Carolina are the only two states that set the age at 16.” Yet, “all states retain the ability to prosecute especially violent youths as adults, in some cases with no minimum age limit.” In Chicago, any minor charged with a felony undergoes automatic transfer to adult court. In 2010, 58% of 17-year-olds charged in adult court in Chicago were charged with non-violent offenses.
Fiction: You wouldn’t be in prison if you hadn’t done something wrong.
Reality: The reality of our criminal justice system is that wrongful arrests and convictions happen far too often. The Innocence Project, a national organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted, has found that “wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events, but arise from systemic defects that can be precisely identified and addressed.” These defects include: eyewitness misidentification, unvalidated or improper forensics, forensic science misconduct, government misconduct, false testimony by informants, poor lawyering, and false confessions. False confessions have been a large problem in Chicago. Between 1972 and 1991, police commander Jon Burge oversaw the torture of more than 100 African-American men and women while they were in police custody at Area 2 headquarters.
Beyond wrongful convictions, we hold that much of the growth in prison populations has been driven by the criminalization of poverty in our country—people are criminalized for trying to survive by participating in underground economies. People of color are also criminalized for addiction problems or simply for participating in the drug economy that nearly everyone in this country is a part of at some point in their lives. Women and gender-non-conforming people defending them selves from abuse are criminalized. “Criminals” have become what Michelle Alexander (2010) calls “a racialized caste system” in our society—not a group of people who “did something wrong”, but a group of people who have been relegated to a different caste in our society based on racism, classism, and irrational fear.