You may have heard that our prisons are insanely dysfunctional. This year alone we have seen botched executions on death row, the New York Times has exposed a culture of violence on Rikers Island, and private profiteers are angling to turn prisons into paychecks. Prisons are breeding grounds for disease, they are dilapidated financial sinkholes, and they are symbols of the deep-seated racial prejudices that overwhelm our society. Here is a personal essay about what that means to me.
This Is How I Lost My Brother
My brother has been in and out of prison his entire adult life. Sometimes I wonder how things went so horribly wrong. We were raised in the same household. We were forced to attend each other’s football games and swim meets and tennis matches and piano recitals. Our parents made us take family portraits at Olan Mills every year. We had family dinners and family vacations. I remember when my father made us all watch Roots together. We went to church camp. We always wrote Thank You notes. We were a strong black family.
But then something happened. Something snapped. Our once happy home started to come apart at the seams and no one knew how to put it back together again. It was around this time that my brother and I—completely inseparable—started to drift apart. I haven’t seen him since. I have seen him, but only intermittently during the brief moments when he’s not in prison. He was introduced to the system when he was 16-years-old and he hasn’t been able to get out of it ever since. He’s now 33. Sometimes I wonder if he even wants to get out of it. Perhaps he feels more at ease behind bars where the culture remains the same, where he isn’t told how gifted and talented he is, where he doesn’t have to think about how much of his life has been spent in captivity. I have not given up on my brother. No matter how many times he is locked up I still believe he will learn to live with us again, learn to cherish his freedom. I have, however, given up on our broken prison system.
The other day I was chatting with my friend Eduardo Porter, a columnist for the New York Times, and he made an interesting comment: “In the United States until the 1970s, there was this notion that prison was about reforming people who were criminals. If they went to prison, they would be rehabilitated and somehow be able to come back into normal civilian life and lead a productive existence. In fact, that’s why it’s called the Department of Corrections.” The irony is, recidivism is so high that it’s virtually impossible to argue that our prison system does anything but encourage more criminal activity. Correcting or rehabilitating are no longer a part of this equation. “The idea of rehabilitation was very much there,” continued Eduardo, “but around the 1970s the tide shifts into this feeling that rehabilitation is out of reach. It does not happen. The sense becomes that, the way to combat crime, or the way to address crime, is not to convert these criminals into non-criminal people, but to keep them out of normal society.”
In other words, America decided that prison wasn’t about rehabilitation, it was about deterrence. It wasn’t about determining the appropriate punishments based on the crime, it was about punishing a person for being a criminal. The thinking was, perhaps individuals will think twice about breaking the law if we have these outrageous sentences for nonviolent crimes. Legislation was passed that encouraged harsh sentencing, most famously the three-strikes rule. Of course, things didn’t work out that way. Now we have a prison system that is outdated, overcrowded, expensive, and destructive. People like my brother, a smart black kid from a southern California suburb who made some bad decisions as a teenager, are stuck. They are victims and some of them become casualties.
The New Slavery
Not everyone feels a knot in their stomach when they think about how desperately we need prison reform. Not everyone has an older brother behind bars. If you are black, however, prison reform is an urgent matter and the reasons why are staggering. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to the NAACP, 1 million of our total 2.3 million prisoners are black, blacks are six times more likely to be behind bars than whites, and as of 2001 one in six black men have been locked up. It’s a new type of bondage that disproportionately targets a single group of people. “As we become a more equal society, the distance between the haves and the have-nots grows,” said Eduardo. “It’s easier to see the have-nots in dysfunctional neighborhoods, dysfunctional families, dysfunctional social situations as something other than yourself and think, ‘Well, let’s just put them in jail.’ Empathy erodes and the sense that we’re part of a commonwealth disappears. The rise of income inequality, perhaps specifically the peeling off of the very top percentiles of the population from the rest, might contribute to this trend—it breeds indifference.”
Remember those crazy stipulations certain states imposed to try and curb the abortion rate, forcing prospective mothers to look at an ultrasound before going through with the procedure? Imagine what it would be like if we lived in a world in which we were forced to watch men be executed, some of whom claim that they are innocent up until the day lethal doses of barbiturates are injected into their veins. I have no doubt in my mind that things would be different. As it happens, we live in a country that is perfectly fine with the death penalty so long as we don’t actually have to participate. We don’t have to get our hands dirty. We don’t have to feel that we have anything in common with the man who is about to die. After all, we don’t treat slaves like humans. Black men in prison are the new slaves. As prisoners they remain uneducated, unable to exercise their right to vote, unable to care for their family, unable to function in normal society. On top of that, they have hundreds of years of internalized grief and demoralization to shoulder.
The War on Drugs Was an Epic Failure
At this point, we can all agree upon the fact that the war on drugs was a failure of colossal proportions. It did not keep drugs off of the streets and it did not prevent moral decay. What it did do was disproportionately target low-income people. It functioned with an inherent racial and class bias. “It was the war on drugs in poor neighborhoods, right? I mean at least on the streets,” said Eduardo. “You know about the Rockefeller laws, right? If you get caught doing normal cocaine, you get a fraction of the sentence than if you’re caught doing crack. This was encoded in law, and it’s an enormous injustice. It basically ensured that because the crack epidemic was more prevalent amongst blacks, if you’re black and young, your odds of ending up in jail are way higher than if you’re white and doing drugs, too.”
According to the Department of Justice, black males between the ages of 18 and 19 are almost 9.5 times more likely than white males of the same age group to be in prison. This is quite possibly the worst time to go to prison. It almost guarantees you won’t get a degree, that you won’t enter the job market at the right time, and when you are released you’ll be less likely to get hired. So if you’re an 18-year-old black man who gets busted in the wrong place at the wrong time with a joint, you could end up completely destroying your life. It would be a victory for the war on drugs, however. At least according to Ronald Reagan. During his administration, “the number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.”
They disguised the seriously racist policies promoted during the war on drugs by using nifty catch phrases such as “Just Say No,” and establishing educational programs like DARE. These programs did little to address the fact that the battlefield for this “war” would be the homes of inner city minority youths where the real enemy wasn’t drugs, but poverty. To my mind, the most egregious byproduct of this total failure is the spread of HIV/AIDS. Drug Policy Alliance claims that these “increasingly harsh drug policies also blocked the expansion of syringe access programs and other harm reduction policies to reduce the rapid spread of AIDS/HIV. Not surprisingly, today black men also account for the majority of new AIDS/HIV infections that happen in this country every year as well.
Now I’m Livin’ in Correctional Facilities
“They touch the criminal justice system and never leave it,” said Eduardo. “They go in for something, they’re in there for a little while, then they go back out, then they’re immediately back in. In this system, society can’t really function, especially when the share of the population that’s subject to this behavior is growing.” This sounds familiar. It’s exactly what has happened with my brother. He’s never in jail for a serious offense that would keep him out of my life for decades at a time. He’ll be gone for a few years and then he’ll be back, and just when we think that he’s ready to become a productive member of society, he starts using again and ends up back in the system. The pattern is so familiar to me now that I’ve almost become used to it. It’s heartbreaking. The last time I knew he was getting ready to do something that would end up putting him back in jail, I said to him that it’s like having to watch him die over and over again. I’m used to it, but it doesn’t mean it hurts any less.
“I think there is a budding realization that this [incarceration] policy is just not workable. It is not affordable and it is socially not workable because of all the other consequences—fatherless families, single parenthood. Children whose parents are in jail are more likely to end up in jail themselves. You start creating these positive feedback loops of dysfunction.” In a piece that Eduardo wrote this year titled “In the U.S., Punishment Comes Before the Crimes,” he cites a frightening statistic: A black boy born in 2001 had a 32.2 percent chance of spending time in jail or prison. Think about that. Think about being a parent and knowing that your child has one in three chances of ending up locked away and once he’s there he’ll go in and out for most of his life. This is why black men take up nearly half of the entire prison population. It has to stop.
He Is a Man and He Is My Brother
There is an iconic image made popular during the abolitionist movement. It shows a slave in shackles on his knees pleading for freedom. Underneath him reads the inscription, "Am I Not A Man And A Brother?" I remember the first time I saw that image and was completely struck by its power. I remember thinking, this man was born into slavery and yet he still understands the value of freedom and he craves it despite the fact that he only knows a life of bondage. We are hardwired to want to be free. Does my brother not feel this way? Does he think his life is less valuable than mine or anyone who isn't in jail? He seems so confident when he's at his best, but I sometimes wonder if, deep down, he feels empty, alone, and ashamed. We are all statistics, sure, but most of us don't face the sort of obstacles that my brother and other black men like him had to deal with at a very young age.
I will never give up on my brother, but I do worry that he has given up on himself. I worry that he sees this system intent on holding him down for the rest of his life and he feels powerless against it. I want to believe that we will see real reform in the prison system, reform that actually helps inmates who are addicts or mentally ill, before my family and I have to live through another traumatizing episode. That type of reform is unlikely to happen soon, but as we continue to crowd our prisons with nonviolent offenders and poor and unlucky black men, we are starting to see the system collapse on itself.
In California, for example, the state mandated the release of thousands of prisoners who had been convicted of nonviolent crimes in an effort of alleviate the overcrowded system. Of course the real motivation here is money. "The United States spent about $80 billion on its system of jails and prisons in 2010—about $260 for every resident of the nation," wrote Eduardo. Sooner or later, we are going to get very fed up with paying for the fallout of a failed drug policy that only ended up being another example of widespread, institutional racism running rampant in America. I know I'm sick of paying for it, but more importantly I miss my brother, and I know I'm not alone. I just wish he weren't.
Lauretta Charlton is an Associate Editor at Complex. Killer of Sheep is her favorite movie. She tweets at @laurettaland.