Mass Incarceration and Racist State Priorities At Home and Abroad

by Paul Street

Dissident Voice
March 11, 2003


* A slightly abbreviated version of the following speech was delivered at The National Community Building Network's 2003 Policy Conference, Creating a Connected Community: Strategies for Overcoming Social and Economic Isolation, Seattle Washington, February 27, 2003


I want to thank the National Community Building Network for inviting me to share and reflect on some of my findings on racially disparate mass incarceration and related prisoner reentry issues.


One of the reasons that the topic of the prison industrial complex elicits so much interest recently is that s that it powerfully and simultaneously challenges two of contemporary America's greatest self-deceiving ideological myths.


The first myth holds that America has become a color-blind post-racist nation. I'll get to some of the relevant facts on that in a few minutes. I should mention here that even John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute - an intellectual who has made a lucrative career out of arguing that racism is essentially over in America - admits that racial discrimination continues to be a huge problem in the nation's prison and criminal justice systems.


The second myth is the notion of the powerless and cash-strapped state. I'm talking about the idea that government can't really do anything anymore; that it doesn't have the strength, the legitimacy, the money, the wherewithal to carry out key objectives. Tell that to the nation's mass of prisoners and ex-prisoners.


To break through the second myth, you have to ask whose objectives American government can and supposedly can't carry out. In the wealthiest nation on earth, the public sector lacks the money to properly fund education for all of the country's children. It lacks the resources to provide universal health coverage, leaving 42 million American without basic medical insurance. It can't match unemployment benefits to the numbers out of work. It lacks or claims to lack the money to provide meaningful rehabilitation and reentry services for its many millions of very disproportionately black prisoners and ex-prisoners, marked for life with a criminal record.


The list of unmet civic and social needs goes on and on.


But listen to what our public sector can pay for. It can afford to spend trillions on Tax Cuts rewarding the top 1 percent in the thoroughly disingenuous name of "economic stimulus." It can spend more on the military than on all of its possible enemy states combined many times over, providing massive subsidy to the high-tech corporate sector, including billions on weapons and "defense" systems that bear no meaningful relations to any real threat faced by the American people. It can afford to incapacitate and incarcerate a greater share of its population than any nation in history and to spend hundreds of millions each year on various forms of corporate welfare and other routine public subsidies to "private" industry. It can afford hundreds of billions and perhaps more than a trillion dollars for an invasion and occupation of distant devastated nation that poses minimal risk to the US and even to its own neighbors.


The American public sector is weak and cash-strapped when it comes to social democracy for the people but its cup runs over in powerful ways when it comes to meeting the needs of wealth, racial disparity and empire.


I've been working on the incarceration and reentry issues in Chicago for the last couple of years and I've brought along a copy of a study I recently completed. It contains a lot of the basic facts on racial and other dimensions of the incarceration and ex-offender issue, with a special focus on the employment problems of ex-offenders. Regarding Chicago and Illinois, I learned and reported that Illinois' rising prison (IDOC) population (94 percent male) now stands suggestively close to the number of households (predominately female-headed) in the state receiving public family cash assistance. Just nine years ago the number of prisoners in Illinois made up less than 15 percent number of the state's welfare families. That's a remarkable transformation.


I learned that two thirds of the prison population is African-American in a state that is only 15 percent black. Nearly the same percentage comes from the Chicago metropolitan area, something that will surprise nobody familiar with the highly segregated racial demographics of the state. In 2001, the state's incarceration rate for African-Americans was more than ten times the rate for whites


To house its rising number of very disproportionately black and Chicago-based prisoners, I found, Illinois built 20 adult prisons, an average of one per year, between 1980 and 2000. Mass incarceration has emerged as one of the leading growth items in the state's budget over the last sixteen (16) years, increasing from just over a third the amount it spends on higher education to nearly three fourths.


In Illinois, it costs $20,637 a year to house an adult prisoner and $50, 286 to incarcerate a juvenile. The cost of incarcerating one adult is equal to more than four and a half times the state's legally mandated public education "foundation level" of $4,560 - the minimum expenditure determined to be required to meet the educational needs of a single child.


One finding really knocked me out. As of June 2001, I calculated, there were nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than the number of black males enrolled in the state's public universities. There were more black males in the state's correctional facilities just on drug charges than the total number of black males enrolled as undergraduates in state universities. In addition, I determined and reported that just 992 black males received a bachelors' degree (3.3 percent of all conferred) from those universities in 1999. Seven thousand black males were released from the Illinois state prison system the following year just for drug offenses.


This provides some context for understanding the different racial meanings attached to the phrase "going downstate" for white and black youth in the Chicago area. Beyond the shared favorable suggestion of a trip to the state basketball tournament, the connotations are sharply (skin-) colorized. For many white youths in and around Chicago, the phrase evokes the image of a trip with Mom and Dad to begin academic careers at the prestigious University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign or one of the state's other many public universities. But for younger Chicago-area Blacks, especially males (6 percent of the state's prisoners are female), "going downstate" more commonly means a trip under armed guard to take up residence at one of the state's numerous maximum or medium-security prisons.


In 1996, I found out, the respected international human rights organization Human Rights Watch reported, "blacks constituted an astonishing 90 percent of all drug offenders admitted to prison in Illinois." By 2000, the percentage had barely fallen to 89 percent, making Illinois number two in the nation in terms of this key disparity. The top one is Maryland - the other state that suspended the death penalty because of racial and other forms of bias in murder convictions.


Turning to ex-offender issues, I learned and reported that Illinois in 2001 was home to more than 400,000 ex-felons and nearly 120,000 ex-prisoners. Fifty three percent of those ex-felons and 81 percent of those ex-prisoners were black. The difference reflects the tendency of criminal justice authorities to give white "offenders" and probation and black "offenders" prison.


Black male ex-prisoners, I found, are equivalent in number to nearly one quarter (24 percent) of the black male workforce in the Chicago area. Black male ex-felons are equivalent in number to 42 percent of the black male workforce in the Chicago area. I mentioned this statistic to a Chicago Tribune reporter writing about our research last Fall and he didn't want to include it because of what it might do to black workers.


The findings that seemed to interest reporters most related to zip codes. I learned that ten very predominantly black Chicago zip codes (including five on the city's West Side and four on the South Side) received 25 percent of Illinois prisoners released in the years 2000, 2001, and 2002. I determined that released prisoners are returning to the same highly disadvantaged communities from which they came prior to incarceration. The city's top 15 zip codes for prison releases are very nearly (and in nearly the same exact order) identical to the top 15 zip codes for prison population origin. The top 15 zip codes for prison releases contain 10 of the city's top 15 zip codes for poverty, 11 of the top 15 zip codes for unemployment, 10 of the lowest 15 zip codes for median income, and 10 of the lowest zip codes for possession of a high school degree. Each of the top 7 prison release zip codes lost jobs between 1991 and 2000 and 12 of the top 15 prison release zip codes had double-digit unemployment rates in 2000.


These numbers provided some interesting context for a finding that initially surprised us in conducting more the more than sixty interviews with ex-prisoners in the Chicago area - the large number who referred to incarceration as an initially welcome "time out" from the misery if life in their neighborhoods. It is common for to demand that ex-offenders be given "a second chance" but the sorry truth is that many if not most of them are returning home to communities where they never received much in the way of a first chance.


Regarding labor market consequences, I reported that ex-prisoners are returning to disadvantaged communities with their already deep disadvantage deepened further. By the best recent social-science estimates, incarceration carries a significant 10 to 20 percent "wage penalty." Ex-prisoners on average experience no real wage increases in their twenties and thirties, when young men who have never been incarcerated tend to experience rapid wage-growth. Prison time serves, sociologist Devah Pager has noted, "to channel individuals away from skilled occupations and into job sectors which are characterized by low wages, limited job stability, and fewer opportunities for advancement. Overall, incarceration appears to disrupt the career-building process such that prior work experience contributes little to future opportunities. Ex-offenders are left to start back at square one with respect to gaining a foothold in a particular occupation."


Incarceration most particularly closes off employment avenues for ex-offenders in the public sector, Pager finds, thanks largely to rising prohibitions on government hiring of people with drug convictions.


Employer bias, I learned, is a big part of the reason for the wage-penalty on ex-offenders. More than 60 percent of employers report that they would not knowingly hire an ex-offender. By comparison, 92 percent of those employers would likely hire a current or former welfare recipient and 83 percent would hire someone who had been unemployed for a year. It's the worst barrier. For many jobs, and not just public sector jobs, however, employer preferences are irrelevant. Many ex-offenders are banned or severely restricted from employment in a large number of professions, job categories, and fields by professional licensing statutes, rules, and practices that discriminate against potential employees with felony records. According to a study conducted by the DePaul Law School in 2000, of the then ninety-eight occupations requiring state licensure in Illinois, fifty-seven placed stipulations and/or restrictions for licensure on applicants with a criminal record, including in some cases even misdemeanors.


These sorts of barriers provide some context for a different finding in our ex-offenders interviews - the large number of ex-prisoners who reported that their "real sentence" began when they were released from the (not-so) "correctional" facilities.


Interestingly enough, mass incarceration is a prized source of labor market stability and economic security in prison hosting Illinois towns. The prison construction boom - fed by the rising "market" of black offenders - is an extraordinary source of jobs, tax dollars, and associated local economic multipliers for "downstate" Illinois communities. Using a very conservative estimate that each prisoner is worth $25, 000 worth of local economic development each year, I have guessed that mass incarceration transfer as much as a billion dollars each year from the state's mostly Chicago-based black community to the state's predominantly white and rural prison towns. Those towns and the correctional unions that represent their prison workers (AFSCME Council 31 in Illinois, which lobbied for the construction of the state's inhumane "Supermax" facility in the town of Tamms) - three cheers for American trade unionism! - have joined hands with prison-contracting corporations and "law and order" politicians. Together they form a politically powerful prison industrial complex that pushes incarceration as an economic development program regardless of mass imprisonment's prison's impact on public safety.


These sorts of numbers and disparities are hardly unique to Illinois. Thanks to a 30-year campaign of racially disparate surveillance, arrest, sentencing and incarceration carried out under the auspices of the War on Drugs, things have reached the point where no nation has ever imprisoned a higher percentage of its people than the contemporary United States. The US is home to 6 percent of the world's people and 25 percent of its prisoners.


The racial disparities are incredible across the entire country. America is home to two million prisoners and roughly half of them are black even though African-Americans make up less than 13 percent of the nation's population. One in 10 of the world's prisoners is an African-American male. According to the Justice Policy Institute there are now more black men behind bars than in college in the United States of America, "sweet land of liberty."


It's all pretty remarkable when you consider that US policymakers are planning to invade and occupy another sovereign nation in the name of "freedom." And when you consider that most white Americans like to think of their society as now essentially color-blind, as post-racist and that our policymakers like to refer to the US as the world's greatest multiracial democracy.


Most, indeed 95 percent, of America's prisoners return home. Since the great majority of the nation's prisoners are released within a year, mass incarceration generates a massive and ever rising population of ex-offenders. More than 600, 000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons each year. That amounts to more than 1,600 a day, people saddled with what a cover story last summer in The Economist called "The Stigma That Never Fades."


America's "steady stream of individuals, branded by their criminal records," as Pager calls them, is not limited to ex-prisoners. According to the best recent estimates, roughly 13 million Americans - fully 7 percent of the adult population possess felony records.


And an astonishing portion - 40 percent within three years of release - of the nation's army of ex-prisoners cycles back to prison. The modern American mass incarceration state is fed by the recycling of disadvantaged ex-offenders back into the prison system. Of the more than 730,000 people entering prison or jail each year, 33% have been there before.


The racial composition of the ex-offender populations is striking. According to the latest social science estimates from Christopher Uggen up at the University of Minnesota and Jeff Maza at Northwestern, nearly one in five black men in the US has a prison record and an "astounding" one in three black men now possess a felony record.


Thanks to the negative labor market consequences of having a felony record and a prison history, leading academics are now describing racially disparate mass arrest and incarceration as become a major factor in the creation of racial socioeconomic inequality in the US. One such academic is Princeton sociologist Bruce Western. "Although typically the preserve of criminology," Western notes, "incarceration appears to shape aspects of inequality that are of traditional interest to stratification researchers." The "usual list of institutional influences on social stratification - schools, the families, and social policy - should," he argues, "be expanded to consider the coercive redistribution of life chances through incarceration." Among the negative consequences, he adds, we should includes incarceration's artificial suppression of the true black male unemployment rate, which would have stood at 39 percent in the mid-1990s if prisoners were factored in.


Incidentally, since blacks have long been disproportionately reliant on government employment, the public sector's special sensitivity to criminal records in hiring is particularly deleterious in its impact on the African-American community.


In my experience, people are amazed when they hear the prison release and ex-felon numbers. "Six hundred thousand released prisoners a year? You can't be serious." This reaction reflects ignorance about both the numbers going into prison in the first place. More importantly, it reflects ignorance about the relatively short terms that most convicts - especially the rising number of nonviolent drug offenders - serve behind bars. It also reflects the fact prisoners typically return to a relatively small number of heavily disadvantaged minority neighborhoods, where they remain largely beyond the sphere of the mainstream society's awareness and concern.


I mentioned the zip codes in Chicago but you could do the same thing for most big states in the nation. For example, just 3 percent of all the block groups in Cuyahoga County account for 20 percent of Ohio's prisoners and 96 percent of those block groups were found in Cleveland.


Thanks to some writing I've done nationally, I am identified to some extent with the idea that mass incarceration is a form of Reverse Racial Reparations - a form of radical state intervention that transfers wealth, census count and voting power away from the black and into the white community. The chilling and living analogy to slavery (including the infamous "three-fifths" compromise that permitted slave states to count black chattel towards their Congressional representation) is hard to miss, with the exception that black prisoners function much more as capital (raw material) than they do as labor under the current regime.


The metaphor I prefer is "the vicious circle." In Illinois, Chicago and the whole nation, mass incarceration is a civil rights problem in and of itself. At the same time, it also produces a significant and multi-dimensional "collateral" damage, both reflecting and exacerbating the social, political, and economic disenfranchisement of inner city black communities and deepening the inequality of wealth and income between blacks and whites. In Chicago and Illinois as throughout the nation, the decision and that's exactly what it is - a very explicit policy decision - to criminalize and incarcerate the predominantly black urban "underclass" at the expense of more positive, proactive, and productive social expenditures and without appropriate concomitant attention to rehabilitation and reentry creates problems larger than those it set out to solve. It:


* perpetuates and deepens the segregation, alienation, inequality, and exclusion that led many former prisoners and ex-felons into "criminal" activity in the first place.


* deepens the labor market difficulty and other forms of disadvantage experienced by hundreds of thousands of minority men and women.


* piles new stigma on old, saddling shocking numbers of young men and (increasingly) women, many convicted minor and petty offenses, with the lifelong mark of a criminal record and the often damaging experience of incarceration.


* removes real and potential wages, purchasing power, economic development and political clout from the black community to predominantly white prison communities and corporations.


* diverts attention and resources away from confrontation with the deep underlying social problems that create the context in which crime and mass incarceration emerge.


* privileges vengeance and punishment above forgiveness and pragmatism in public policy.


* works against a number of key policy goals of the larger society: public safety, stable family formation, long-term labor market attachment, poverty reduction, equal opportunity, racial integration and harmony, civic engagement, education, and balanced community development.


Nearly 37 years ago, the great civil rights leader and peace and social justice proponent Martin Luther King and his fellow activists in the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) came to Chicago and to other parts of the urban north and Midwest. He was determined to challenge the complex social forces and institutions that produced endemic poverty, misery, isolation, and powerlessness in the northern black ghetto. The issues and institutions on which he focused - inferior and segregated schools and housing, racial discrimination in the labor and real estate markets and the public welfare bureaucracy, weakened family structures, unattached and alienated youth, and racial imbalances in the electoral system - are the same ones that have preoccupied scholars, activists and others concerned with the persistently stark plight of inner city black communities ever since.


Were he to miraculously return today, King would be disappointed to see that these same forces and institutions still reflect and feed stark patterns of black-white inequality, segregation, and disproportionate black poverty in the Chicago area and the US as a whole. He would also be struck by the dramatically elevated significance of one particular institutional force in the perpetuation and deepening of that poverty, inequality, and uneven development: the criminal justice system.


He would be passionately concerned with the new regime of racially disparate mass incarceration that has emerged under the auspices of the War on Drugs during the last 25-30 years. The main policy problem faced by the victims of that regime, is definitely not powerless government. It is rather the actions of an in fact powerful and interventionist public sector that is being stripped of its positive and pro-active social functions and geared increasingly towards regressive, repressive, authoritarian and punitive behavior.


As George W. Bush prepares an unjust, punitive, and criminal state-imperialist attack on Iraq, it is worth recalling that he owes his presence at the seat of world power to the punitive and criminally excessive electoral disenfranchisement of black ex-felons both real and suspected in the state of Florida. It is worth recalling that Bush is reputed to have benefited from the expungement of a felony drug conviction from his record. And it is also worth reflecting that a number of soldiers serving in his armed forces were given the option of joining the military as their only alternative to incarceration.


On a positive note, the majority of American people join with those in Europe and other parts of the world oppose his plans to needlessly put those soldiers in harms way without multilateral and United Nations approval. In a similar vein, we now have some very interesting survey data from Peter Hart Associates and other leading pollsters showing that most Americans would like their policymakers to move away from punitive, racially disparate mass incarceration and towards pro-active treatment, rehabilitation and community-based justice and real "corrections." This too is in line with European and world opinion.


The dark cloud around criminal justice issues at home is starting I think to fade a little and I look forward to working with all of you both in de-incarcerating this nation and in stopping Mad King George from blowing up the world.


Paul Street is the author of “Color Bind," a chapter in Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor (Routledge Press, 2003), edited by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright. Email:  


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