Mass Incarceration: A destroyer of people of color and their communities

Criminal Justice — By Jamaal Bell on May 17, 2010 at 13:02

Dear Obama Administration, instead of having our Drug Czar focus on addiction recovery and prevention programs, how about changing the policy of our racialized criminal justice system that has used the “War on Drugs” policy to put more Black males in the criminal justice system than slavery in 1850?

Around this time last year, the Obama Administration’s Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske said he wants to banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting “a war on drugs,” which is a move that favors treatment over mass incarceration. While this approach is being taken, more than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities.

For Black males in their twenties, 1 in every 8 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color, according to a report by The Sentencing Project.

The Obama Administration and the states must take racial disparities in our criminal justice system seriously because it affects the public safety of entire communities. Research shows that people of color who live in high crime areas fear victimization and express a need for increased public safety, yet empathize with offenders and the struggles that they face upon release from incarceration.

What are those struggles?

For example, ex-offenders struggle to find housing, transportation and basic health care upon release from prison, according to Minnesota’s Council on Crime and Justice. In fact, according to Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” ex-offenders aren’t eligible for public assistance such as public housing, Medicaid and welfare, moreover, are legally discriminated against when applying for employment.

Furthermore, if ex-offenders are fortunate enough to even find employment, in some states the government can garnish up to 100 percent of their income for the cost of their imprisonment, court and legal fees. This inequity, by our justice system in its failure to address the immediate needs of returning offenders, causes the families and the communities they live in to bear the burden of providing support.

Don’t forget about Native Americans in this injustice.

Much of the literature written about mass incarceration tends to be primarily about the Latinos, Blacks and Whites. What about our Native brothers and sisters?

The incarceration rate of Native Americans is 38% higher than the national rate. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights attributes this higher rate to differential treatment by the criminal justice system, lack of access to adequate counsel and racial profiling .

One example: in South Dakota, Native Americans make up 8 percent of the state’s population, they compose 22 percent of the state’s male prison population. Native women compose 35 percent of female prison population, according to a Dakota-Lakota-Nakota Human Rights Advocacy Coalition Report.

Law enforcement agents arrest American Indians and Alaskan Natives at twice the rate of the greater U.S. population for violent and property crimes. On average, American Indians receive longer sentences than non-Indians for crimes.

They also tend to serve longer time in prison for their sentences than non-Native Americans. The suicide rate is higher among American native inmates incarcerated in jails than non-Indians.

What needs to happen?

We need to admit that racial disparities are tied to our unequal justice practices, and develop strategies, in-cooperation, with law enforcement and community that will reduce racial disparity and enhance public safety.

We need to change policy by removing barriers for those with criminal records so they can gain access to employment, housing and civic engagement. What is the point of being released back into society if you can’t positively participate in society?

We need to create programs that support ALL families of offenders/ex-offenders. It is important for ex-offenders, the children of incarcerated parents, and their caretakers to establish a network of social support.

Thankfully, there are some states, NGOs, associations and research institutions around the nation advocating for the rights of ex-offenders and combating racial disparities in America’s prisons. However, there needs to be a shift in the administration and the states’ thinking and action.

Race needs to be explicitly discussed as it relates to policy change, mass incarceration, and criminal justice. Also how the racially disproportionate enforcement of the “War on Drugs” has negatively affected communities of color.

Sidenote: An example NGO is Rebuild Resources located in St. Paul, Minnesota. Rebuild Resources is a non-profit enterprise helping recovering men and women rebuild their lives through the most powerful social program… A job.

However, they are explicitly committed to serving people who struggle at the intersection of recovery, reentry and racism. “Rather than cherry-pick people who have the fewest barriers to overcome, we look to hire the people who most need our services, are committed to changing their lives, and are ready to work,” said Lori Stee, Program Director of Rebuild Resources.

Stee, knows the importance and the need for policy change as it pertains to mass incarceration. “[Rebuild Resources] is deeply involved in collaborative community partnerships to better serve people reentering the community after incarceration,” said Stee.

She went on to say that the public must be educated regarding the need for more effective reentry policy. “Policy changes must be from a 3-fold perspective: public safety, fiscal responsibility and social justice,” said Stee.

Rebuild Resources has helped more than 900 Minnesotans since 1984, however, 6,000 people are released from Minnesota prisons each year.

The Minnesota Second Chance Coalition and more than a dozen other NGOs advocate for fair and responsible laws, policies, and practices that allow those who have committed crimes to redeem themselves, fully support themselves and their families, and contribute to their communities to their full potential. View their 2010 legislative policy agenda.

Photo by Spencer Weiner, AP

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Line Break

Author: Jamaal Bell (6 Articles)

Jamaal Bell

Jamaal Bell is media relations manager for the Kirwan Institute and the executive editor for Race-Talk. Prior to joining Kirwan in 2009, his communications experience included work for school districts, government and marketing communications firms. Jamaal has also served four years in the United States Navy. He holds a B.S. in Public Relations from Ball State University. Follow him on Twitter @Sgt_Justice or Facebook (


  • Jamaal Bell Jamaal Bell says:

    CORRECTION FROM PARAGRAPH 5: Michelle Alexander does NOT argue that Medicaid and welfare benefits are off-limits to ex-offenders generally.

    It’s true that drug offenders are ineligible for federally-funded welfare benefits, including food stamps, for the rest of their lives. But murders and rapists can still get welfare and food stamps. That’s the insanity of the drug war. I think I have made an impression that that Medicaid and welfare benefits are off limits for ALL offenders — no matter what their prior offense — which isn’t true.

  • LoloReads LoloReads says:

    The crime rate in the U.S. in the first decade of the 21st century is approximately the same as it was in 1970. One might assume that the incarceration rate over the same time period would be consistent with the reported crime rate. This is not the case. Until about 1970 the rate of incarceration in the United States held steady at about one in one thousand adults. However, at present one in a hundred adults is incarcerated, A TENFOLD INCREASE in the past 40 years.

    People of color, and most egregiously Black men, are disproportionately represented at every point of contact in the criminal justice system. In his book, Punishment and Inequality in America, Harvard sociologist Bruce Western concludes that mass imprisonment has erased many of the gains to African American citizenship hard won by the Civil Rights Movement.

    We have become a nation of jailers–racist jailers at that. So, is it worth it? Do you feel safer? What exactly have we gained at such grave cost?

  • Jamaal Bell Jamaal Bell says:

    Michelle Alexander the expert on mass incarceration gave me some feedback on my article. She said:

    1) I think the drug czar SHOULD be focusing on drug treatment and prevention programs. I don’t see why a focus on drug treatment is at odds with ending the drug war. The problem, as I see it, is that our drug czar is doing a lot of talking about the desperate need for drug treatment and prevention, but the budget actually has the same ratio of dollars going to treatment and prevention as compared to law enforcement as the Bush budget. So I think a lot more focus, energy, and resources should be devoted to drug treatment (it should be considered part of universal health care), but the problem is that, right now, it’s all talk while the enforcement dollars continue to flow.

    2) I think it’s important to distinguish between people’s concern with violent offenses versus non-violent drug offenses. Check out page 59 of my book where I show mass incarceration has been driven by drug convictions — overwhelmingly non-violent, drug offenses. And also check out page 99 where I show that violent crime rates have had nothing to do with the prison boom. While people have real concerns about violent crime, polls show people think treatment, rather than incarceration, is a much better approach to dealing with drug crime.

  • HUTNJERRY says:

    Very poingnant piece Mr Bell! Personally I’m an ex-offender convicted of 3 felony offenses. Having served 3 yrs in Texas Department of Criminal Justice. One of my offenses was Assault Bodily Injury(Family Violence). Originally the offense was classified as a Misdeameanor(3rd degree) but was “ENHANCED” by the D.A. Since my release I have found the prospect of securing stable fulltime employment virtually impossible! Granted I was guilty of the crime of Family Violence but I feel that the Justice system basically uses both the Victim as well as the Perpatrator in these cases for thier own political gain. But I digress, I feel with the Legal tactics of Discrimination i.e. Background Checks allows businesses carte blanch to basically curtail laws pertaining to EOE, etc. therby making whatever gains we may have enjoyed via CIVIL RIGHTS null and void. Once again Mr Bell I’d like to commend you on this piece and please continue to bless us with your timely information. STAY BLESSED!

  • GMC262 says:

    Another revelatory piece Jamal; for me especially, the stats on Native Americans. If the US is to have credibility in dealing with injustice in other parts of the world, we have to deal with the situation at home.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Leave a Trackback