WOUNDS FROM INCARCERATION THAT NEVER HEAL
TONY N. BROWN & EVELYN PATTERSON
Tony N. Brown is Professor of Sociology at Rice
University, Houston, TX. Evelyn Patterson is Assisstant Professor
of Sociology at Vanderbilt University.
incarceration damages individuals and communities in ways that
scholars are just starting to explore.
that we’ve published with our colleague Mary Laske Bell
shows that African American men who are former inmates are irrevocably
harmed by time they have spent behind bars.
finding is troubling because incarceration has increased over
the last four decades due to mandatory minimums and the war on
drugs. Specifically, there has been a 500 percent increase in
the number of inmates over the last 40 years. Despite decreasing
crime rates, the United States locks up more people than any other
nation. Although home to only five percent of the world’s
population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s
our judicial system is inefficient. Men and women who have not
been convicted of a crime, rot in unsafe, overcrowded and understaffed
jails waiting for their day in court. This is especially true
in large urban areas. For example, inmates in Chicago’s
jails in 2015 served the equivalent of 218 years more time waiting
for trial than the sentences they would ultimately be given. Housing
the inmates for this extra time cost taxpayers $11 million.
may be the least of it. Consider the case of Kalief Browder, who
was 16 years old when arrested and who spent three years in Rikers
Island – including two in solitary confinement – before
his case was dismissed. The trauma of those years alone behind
bars lingered. At 22, Browder committed suicide.
RACIAL BIAS AND DISPARITIES
worse: Lady Justice is far from colourblind.
Alexander memorably labeled mass incarceration The New Jim
Crow in her landmark book of the same name.
Americans constitute nearly one million of the 2.3 million persons
incarcerated and are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate
of whites. One in three African American men will experience prison;
white men’s risk is just six percent. Hispanic men are almost
three times as likely to be imprisoned as non-Hispanic white men.
The poor are also disproportionately represented behind bars.
DAMAGE AND SCARRING EFFECTS
girlfriends and children of African American men who go to jail
or prison suffer collateral damage. Studies show that the children
of inmates do less well in school and exhibit behavioural problems.
In addition, women partnered with inmates suffer from depression
and economic hardship.
assume that being released from jail or prison would represent
an opportunity to make good on commitments to be a better person
and return to normal life. If incarceration actually rehabilitated
inmates, then that assumption would make sense. But alas, it does
not, despite what many people believe.
instead suggests that being locked away scars, stigmatizes and
damages inmates. A history of incarceration has been linked to
vulnerability to disease, greater likelihood of cigarette smoking
and even premature death.
OF THE FORMERLY INCARCERATED
study looked at how having a family member locked up related to
psychological distress (a measure of mental health) among African
American men, some of whom have done time. There is not a lot
of data from respondents about their history of incarceration.
The assumption is that no one wants to disclose that they were
locked up. And most scholarly attention focuses on collateral
damage, neglecting the experiences of the formerly incarcerated.
existing survey data from the National Survey of American Life,
we invoked the stress process model to predict psychological distress.
We asked if familial incarceration was a stressor that went above
and beyond the typical stress people experience. We controlled
for social determinants that affect mental health, including age,
education, marital status, employment and childhood health. We
focused on variables that helped determine the character of familial
incarceration including chronic stress, family emotional support
into the study, we expected that all African American men would
be distressed by the imprisonment of an immediate family member.
We also expected that men who had been locked up would experience
even higher levels of psychological distress because they would
empathize with their family member who was currently behind bars.
right on one count. Men who had never been incarcerated did experience
high levels of distress when a family member was locked up.
we found among formerly incarcerated African American men was
totally unexpected. When their immediate family members were in
jail or prison, formerly incarcerated black men reported low levels
of psychological distress. How low? Lower than never incarcerated
black men without relatives in jail or prison. And -- even more
surprisingly -- lower than formerly incarcerated men without imprisoned
relatives. How could this be possible?
re-checking the analyses for errors and finding none, we speculated
that formerly incarcerated African American men may feel no empathy
for their immediate family members who were currently in jail
of empathy may be a valuable survival strategy in jail or prison,
but our findings imply that this ‘empathetic inurement’
follows these men back into the community.
that formerly incarcerated African American men return home to
families and communities that desperately need them changed in
a terrible way. They may be tone-deaf when it comes to recognizing
the suffering of their currently incarcerated family members.
Even more, they may be unable to act as model citizens or good
husbands or loving fathers.
that we aim to punish offenders such that they better respect
the rights of others and follow the norms associated with responsible
citizenship. Cesare Beccaria, the father of criminology, taught
us that the purpose of punishment was to prevent future crime.
we treat former inmates as full members of society? In 34 states,
people who are on parole or probation cannot vote. In 12 states,
a felony conviction means never voting again. In addition, prior
incarceration can affect one’s ability to secure certain
federal benefits or get a job.
facts indicate failure of the punishment imperative and demonstrate
that reform is overdue. This is especially true given the results
of a recent study that showed some black men will spend almost
one third of their lives in prison or ‘marked’ with
a felony conviction.
FOR THE FUTURE
States spends about $80 billion yearly on corrections. As such,
the economic crisis of 2008 ignited debate about how to decrease
incarceration in the United States.
debate bled into discussions about access to high-quality education
and health care, differential sentencing, gentrification, joblessness,
residential racial segregation, wealth disparities, urban decay
and pollution and lingering social inequalities.
makers soon discovered that there was nothing simple about reducing
the incarceration rate.
to continue unreformed, mass incarceration will shape our nation
in ways that should repulse anyone who values the correlated concepts
of freedom and redemption. Unless we consider mass incarceration
a moral and policy failure, it will splinter already fragile families
and communities. That will ultimately hurt our entire nation.