Mass Incarceration: Whatever Happened to the American Dream?

Mass Incarceration: Whatever Happened to the American Dream?

TEHRAN (FNA)- Poor families continue to bear the brunt of criminal-justice policies in the United States, where 2.4 million people are currently in prison.

According to a collaborative research project led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design in partnership with 20 community organizations across the United States, the social harms of mass incarceration spread far beyond prison walls, with poor families enduring direct human rights abuses, and women – who are disproportionately black – bearing the brunt of the poverty and trauma associated with having a loved one locked up.

Entitled Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, the study is based on in-depth interviews with nearly 1,500 formerly incarcerated people, their family members, and employers.

The study determines that individuals with convictions are saddled with an insane amount of fees, and it is largely family members who are responsible for these costs, attorney fees, bail, fines from court, putting money on their commissary, paying healthcare co-pays, and everything associated with release. Put simply, families are not just collateral damage. There is a direct impact, disproportionately on black women and families.

What’s more, over a third of these families are forced into debt to pay for costs including phone calls and visits to see their incarcerated loved ones. The research finds that 83 percent of the family members responsible for these costs are women.

And these women are disproportionately people of color. A study released earlier this year by University of Washington researchers likewise finds that black women are far more likely than their white counterparts to have a family member who is incarcerated.

Almost two-thirds of families have difficulty meeting basic needs as a result of a loved one’s conviction and incarceration, with 70 percent of them having children under the age of 18. Nearly one out of five families are not able to afford housing as a direct result of the loss of income due to their relative’s incarceration. In a sense, they all feel “locked up along with their husbands.”

Clearly, not only does having a family member behind bars bring economic hardship, but it also makes that loved one far less likely to climb out of poverty once he or she is released. The study finds that 67 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed five years after their release!

Perhaps most harrowing are the wounds family members endure. About one in every two incarcerated persons and one in every two family members experience negative health impacts related to their own or a loved one’s incarceration. They frequently report symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, nightmares, hopelessness, depression, and anxiety.

Sadly enough, despite the bleak findings, the report is unlikely to serve as a movement-building tool to force the US justice system rethink policies. After all, this is what the United States is really about: One vast, giant prison cell…

America spends $80 billion a year incarcerating 2.4 million people. That money could be spent on eradicating poverty and discrimination, creating jobs, providing basic food and shelter, caring for children, and promoting health and education. Black Americans go to prison because they don’t see any of these and more. Whatever happened to their American dream?


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