Speakers examine implications of mass incarceration at event
The criminalization of poverty, mental illness and substance addiction is an intersectional issue, agreed a panel of four speakers who discussed social causes of mass incarceration in the United States in a ’DEIS Impact event on Thursday.
Accounting for 22 percent of the global prison population, the U.S. holds the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. The panel emphasized the need to pay attention to the social determinants of mass incarceration that could be prevented through means such as housing, education, rehabilitation and transitional social services.
“We need to think about these different intersectional identities when addressing mass incarceration in our society. Policies affect people differently depending on where they’re coming from,” said Brandy Henry (Ph.D), one of the speakers.
The panel collectively agreed that socioeconomic disparity plays a blanket role in incarceration rates. “There’s two kind of separate criminal justice systems in our society. One for people that can afford the best criminal representation and can afford to pay their bail, … and the one for people who can’t necessarily pay their bail and have to rely on the system,” said Henry.
For these individuals, even those who are innocent, getting to trial may take several years. Incarceration is the beginning of the system cutting off an individual’s support networks, said Henry. “You have to pay bail, but you can’t afford it. You sit there and what happens? You lose your job if you have a job, you lose your kids if you have kids and you can’t go to your medical appointments.”
Speaking from his own experience, David Tavares, Director of Housing at YMCA of Greater Boston and an ex-convict, said, “In a impoverished community, when you’re a young man who [doesn’t] have any money in a capitalistic society, your masculinity becomes your most prized possession. ... And when that happens, you endanger yourself to many traps.”
“Addiction and substance abuse, institutionalized racism — it’s also directly related to socioeconomic status,” said Tavares. Society tends to apply criminal justice to extremes rather than compromise, he added. “When it comes to this issue — [it’s] punishment or rehabilitation,” said Tavares.
“From my experience working in the substance abuse field, the majority of clients come in with substance abuse and mental health diagnosis going hand in hand,” said Keith Anderson, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and an ex-convict. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported in 2010 that 85 percent of people incarcerated in the U.S. either suffered from or had a history of substance abuse.
Lisa Newman-Polk, an attorney specializing in criminal defense in Massachusetts state courts and a licensed social worker, said that the money spent on the prison system could be put to better use in the form of treatment and prevention. “Instead of the 98 cents per dollar that we spend in the drug war on the criminalization of addiction and the two cents that we spend on every dollar towards treatment, we should dramatically transfer our funding to prevention education early on in adolescence, … getting to the roots of why addiction even to begin with?”
The incarceration system as it is ends up being cyclical in many cases, the panelists noted. “The younger you get sucked into the system, the more likely you’re going to stay in it,” said Henry. “Being incarcerated actually makes you more likely to be incarcerated again because of barriers to reentering [society].”
Tavares and Anderson were both incarcerated as young men, and both went through transitional and support programs toward the end of their incarceration terms. They spoke of the importance of such programs in their successful reentry.
“I was convicted when I was 18 years old,” Tavares said. “Not only was I scared to death when I first went to prison, but the stereotype you commonly associate with someone that has a capital case — I didn’t fit that description. When I first went to prison, in order to survive, I had to become the animal that society believed me to be. Remorse and rehabilitation took a back seat.”
Had he been released within the first years of confinement, Tavares said he would have returned to society worse than when he was placed in the system. “If it hadn’t been for that program and support network that I had, I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” he said.
Anderson agreed that transitional programs were the best answer to keeping individuals out of falling back into the prison system. “Give them some education, help them to reenter in society rather than just getting out of jail with the same circumstances. A lot of guys and women come out with no money, no support, and go right back.”
Of the mental disenfranchisement of the prison system, Newman-Polk said, “We’re creating people who cannot live outside of that environment, and then when they’re living in that environment, they’re feeling like hell. … So many people I work with … if they had been given a nurturing environment and been told a different story early on, their story would have turned out differently.”
The event, titled “Mass Incarceration: A Panel on Causes and Pathways to Change,” was part of ’DEIS Impact’s three-part event series about mass incarceration, sponsored by the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.