Prison Nation: A Young Black Man With No Diploma Is More Likely to Be in Jail Than Find a Job

A New York Times article is shedding new light on an old topic: how prison keeps people in poverty. And the article, written by John Tierney as part of a series on the social science of incarceration, contains a shocking statistic: “For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.”

The article follows the ordeal of Carl Harris and Charlene Hamilton, who exemplify how poverty is perpetuated by the prison system. Harris was a crack dealer in Washington, D.C., and made a lot of money before being arrested and incarcerated for assault. As a result of Harris’ imprisonment, his partner Charlene ended up homeless.

Hamilton “went on welfare and turned to relatives to care for their daughters while she visited him at prisons in Tennessee, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico,” Tierney writes.

“I wanted to work, but I couldn’t have a job and go visit him,” said Hamilton. “When he was in New Mexico, it would take me three days to get there on the bus. I’d go out there and stay for a month in a trailer near the prison.”

While Harris admits he belonged in prison in his early 20s, he also does not see the point in being jailed for two decades--and many researchers agree with him. "Prisoners serve significantly more time in the United States than in most industrialized countries. Sentences for drug-related offenses and other crimes have gotten stiffer in recent decades, and prosecutors have become more aggressive in seeking longer terms — as Mr. Harris discovered," writes Tierney.

Hamilton and Harris’ problems are by no means unique. It’s a problem that afflicts many low-income communities of color. As the Times reporter notes, “When sociologists look for causes of child poverty and juvenile delinquency, they link these problems to the incarceration of parents and the resulting economic and emotional strains on families.”

“Education, income, housing, health — incarceration affects everyone and everything in the nation’s low-income neighborhoods,” one sociologist told the paper.

And the deepening of poverty because of incarceration doesn’t stop when the prisoner is released. In Harris’ case, after he was released, the only job he could find was sorting linens for $8.25 an hour. Employers are reluctant to hire people who were incarcerated, prisoners lack work experience and they also have difficulty adapting to normal life after prison.

Sociologists at the University of Washington have estimated that “incarceration typically reduces annual earnings by 40 percent for the typical male former prisoner.” And that data doesn’t take into account the fact that incarceration imposes heavy burdens on families.

“The social deprivation and draining of capital from these communities may well be the greatest contribution our state makes to income inequality,” said Donald Braman, an anthropologist.

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