Fifth, not extra
Reading Response Five
Why does Western think that the high rate of imprisonment stalls the economic health of the nation?
When Western wrote this in 2009, black American men were eight times more likely to end up in prison than white American men. What that rate is now, I did not find with a passing search. However, in ‘The New Jim Crow,’ written three years later, Michelle Alexander shares that ‘nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find they [have fallen] into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out.’ Among the numbers he does cite, ‘of black men born in the sixties with no more than a high school diploma, 30% spent time in prison,’ and ‘60% of (black men who are) high school dropouts have a prison record’ is particularly concerning.
Bruce Western’s essay could easily serve as an intro to the topic for those less familiar than I—which I am sure is the point. What it provides for me is an opportunity to look even deeper into the reasoning behind my own social exclusion. For example, I wonder how many people in my class who have not had an interdependent relationship with someone involved with the criminal justice system will read the essay without dismissing it, because, after all, ‘do the crime, do the time.’ And, ‘they made their bed, they can lie in it.’ Or even, ‘they broke the social contract and so are rightfully barred from entirely re-integrating.’ I should not leave out: ‘People can’t change; rehabilitation is a disproven theory.” Yeah. REALLY not a fan of that argument. ‘The Confederate Flag isn’t a symbol of oppression and secession, either,’ is usually not far behind.
I took note of Western’s point that about the assumption of rehabilitation never sailing in the South. The mere idea that there is ‘an innate moral equality’ in all men should, in a country founded on the idea that each person’s creator made them equal with all of humanity, not be a thinking distortion. Yet, here we are.
The Prosperity Gospel rings a nasty bell in my head; upon reading about the ‘rigorous programs of work and isolation’ prisons were designed to provide, I vomited a little. I spent many hours working my ass off to ‘prove’ that it wasn’t my work ethic that was wrong with me. As if most everyone since I was fourteen who has come into contact with me and knows of my status hasn’t acted in one way or another as if I was just plain old defective. That originally prisons were to be a ‘democratic way’ to “remedy the moral defects of criminal offenders” reads as new to me but feels as old as the pitch on my sandals. If the initial idea of the penal system truly was to ‘rescue the citizenship of the unfortunate, the poor, and the deviant,” democracy in America truly is boiling away, given where we stand today.
Personally speaking, ‘former inmates are generally poorly prepared for the routines of steady employment’ is so true it hurts. Literally, it hurts my pride and dignity, both. Luckily, I am not barred from food stamps, as many former offenders are, but I am dependent on them because of my status. Also, Western hurts me personally, to read: ‘inmates are ultimately released with few resources to lead productive lives,’ and ‘profound social exclusion that significantly rolls back the gains to citizenship hard won by the civil rights movement.’—leads to ‘diminished rates of employment and marriage—again, with the vomit.
I am indeed, though not a minority of color, ‘hidden’ and ‘erased by conventional measures’ of success in American society. I fall into the new ‘caste’ created by policies reacting to the Civil Rights Movement, a caste created with the intent of making certain that ‘class inequalities in imprisonment increased as the economic status of less-educated men decreased.’ I think, anyways.
Less education means less economic opportunity means more inequality means a worse economy for everyone. As Western says, ‘the penal system assumed new responsibilities for public health, delivering treatment to a large scale for mental illness, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and hepatitis C.’ How could this NOT negatively impact everyone (except the 0.01%)?
“The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.”