BLACK MEN – Left Out and Locked Up
There are an estimated 1.5 million Black men in prison and another 3.5 million on probation. Black males make up more than 70 percent of the total prison population, even though they make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population.
The alarming incarceration rates of Black men is not a new phenomenon, but one that has reverberated in news headlines and scholarly reports for a decade.
Impoverished living conditions coupled with the failures of public education in urban school districts, unemployment and a criminal justice system primed to incarcerate Black men have created a crippling symbiosis for thousands of Black men who find themselves locked up in America’s jails and prisons.
A Common Thread
Demico Boothe, a 35-year-old Black man from Tennessee, can recount every day of his 12-year sentence spent mostly in a federal prison. The slave-like chains being the most memorable.
“I would watch the men emerge from the bus to enter the facility, 40 men chained together at the legs and shackled at the wrists. Often, I would count: 36 Black, two White, and one Hispanic. The next week: 35 Black, three Hispanic, two White,” Boothe says.
A common thread among the Black male prisoners, according to Boothe, was their lack of education. “The majority of Black men in jail can barely read, and there are many who simply cannot. The lack of education and the level of ignorance among many of the men was striking,” says Boothe, who released a book on Black male imprisonment last year
entitled, Why So Many Black Men Are in Prison: A Comprehensive Account of How And Why the Prison Industry Has Become a Predatory
Entity in the Lives of African-American Men (XLIbris Corp., 2006).
The lack of education plays an integral role in the cradle-to-prison pipeline. In inner cities across the country, more than half of all Black men do not finish high school, limiting their ability to find employment. In 2001, only 42.8 percent of Black male students graduated from high school compared with 70 percent of their White male counterparts and 56 percent of African-Americans overall. In 2000, 65 percent of Black male high school dropouts in their twenties were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, that percentage grew to 72.
Dr. Ronald Mincy, the Maurice V. Russell Professor of Social Policy and Social Work Practice at Columbia University and author of Black Males Left Behind, argues that steep declines in the demand for low-skilled labor and wages in the traditional labor market propelled many young Black men to abandon the traditional labor market and pursue drug-related ventures.
“With the exception of those who go on to college, most men today earn less than their fathers,” says Mincy.
The product of a low-income household, Boothe, a high school graduate, had college ambitions. While attending a local vocational school, Boothe sold crack cocaine as a side job. At the age of 18, he was arrested for drug possession and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Like thousands of young Black men during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Boothe was caught up in changes in criminal justice policy made during that period to contain the crack cocaine epidemic.
A series of bills passed by lawmakers attached severe penalties to the possession of small amounts of crack cocaine. Most notably, the 100 to 1 sentencing ratio for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. One would have to possess 5,000 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence as someone who had 50 grams of crack cocaine.
“As a result of these policy changes, marginal drug dealers and users filled our state and federal prisons,” Mincy says.
An August 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis revealed that one in three Black males born in 2001 would eventually spend time in prison. Even more disturbing — the majority Black men between the ages of 20 and 39 were behind bars.
“The community impact of Black male incarceration is becoming a larger field of study,” says Dr. Pamela Oliver, the Conway- Bascom Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who specializes in the study of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Research has proven that a high incidence of Black male incarceration destabilizes communities by disenfranchising an entire demographic, increasing the number of fatherless families and decreasing the number of male role models.
“There are not enough men to go around, leaving some women without partners or some men with multiple partners, messing with family relationships and love-and-marriage relationships,” Oliver says. “Large numbers of ex-offenders or drug dealers in a community start to drag down high school graduation rates and pull more kids out of school.”
In the case of Wisconsin, second highest in the nation for Black incarceration rates, dropout rates for Blacks hovered just below the national average of 12.1 percent.
“Ex-offenders re-entering a community have a difficult time finding a job and [experience] diminished earning capacity, essentially a lifetime decline in how much they’re going to earn,” Oliver says.
Says Mincy: “The impact of incarceration weighs heaviest upon children, consideringthat 60 percent of Black males incarcerated are fathers.”
Last December, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal judge’s decision to sentence a crack offender below federal guidelines. The U.S.
Sentencing Commission agreed to give judges the discretion to reduce sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenders.
According to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., organization that studies the impact of mass incarceration on society, some 19,500 persons imprisoned on federal drug charges now are eligible for a sentence reduction of at least two years.
Since the release of his book in February of 2007, Boothe has crisscrossed the nation, visiting jails and prisons saturated with Black men. He notes that many of these men entered America’s jails uneducated, and that many will emerge from these institutions unprepared for the rigors of the 21st century.
Dr. Alford Young Jr., the \Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at the University of Michigan, insists that access to public education for current prisoners will determine the future of Black male incarceration.
“Soon, African-American communities will experience large influxes of ex-offenders [incarcerated in the 1980s and 1990s] attempting to reintegrate themselves into society,” Young says. “Many will say, ‘I need a job,’” noting that access to public education in the form of GEDs and high school diplomas will play a pivotal role in the future of these men and this nation.
“It is cheaper to educate people than it is to incarcerate them,” Young says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com