The prison rate of African American males is having a substantial economic impact on the black community, according to a recent report conducted by the Justice Department. The study on incarceration rates in the United States, Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2002, reports that 12.9% of black males between the ages of 25 and 29 were incarcerated in 2002 and, as a result, communities are losing viable economic resources. On the contrary, white communities, where many of the prisons are located, witnessed a significant boom in business, including new employment opportunities.
“A lot of people are very aware of the high incarceration rates [of black men], but I don’t think people have really thought about the various [long-term,] economic implications,” says James Stewart, a professor of labor studies and industrial relations at Penn State University. When legislators seek funding for social programs, they cite the number of residents in their district. That figure includes prisoners who are considered residents of the district in which their prison is located, as opposed to their home district, says James R. Lanier, senior resident scholar for community justice programs at the National Urban League.
“There’s a shift in public funds,” says Stewart. “[The prison system] is promoting one area’s regional development at the expense of another.” Lanier and the National Urban League are conducting their own study, which will examine the effects of the nation’s prison system on blacks. The study, which will be completed in several weeks, explores the way incarceration rates are economically and socially damaging to the black community. “One less family member is contributing to the family economically,” says Lanier. And because prisoners can only make collect calls to relatives, “some families put blocks on their phones, contributing to social bonding breakdowns,” he says.
Andrea Brown, director of the NAACP National Prison Project, which helps former inmates get readjusted to society, says former prisoners encounter problems the minute they fill out a job application. “The application asks if you’ve been convicted. To say no would be dishonest,” says Brown.
Groups such as the NAACP and the National Urban League are spearheading programs to change that. The first step is for black America to understand that every jail or prison sentence given to us weakens the collective economic power of the black community.