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Friday, 22 October 2010

Prison and the Cycle of Poverty

This article talks about a new study by sociologist recently published in an MIT journal that "details the connection between the American prison expansion and poverty and inequality".  The CEDP has always tried to put the link between poverty and crime at the forefront of our discussion.  The alternative to the death penalty is to put money into things that actually prevent crime - jobs, education, community programs, and health care.


It's no secret that low education levels correlate to incarceration rates; that a criminal record limits job prospects; that families and communities suffer when a large percentage of local men are sent away to prison. Now a new study by leading sociologists published this month in the MIT journal Daedalus details the connection between the American prison expansion and poverty and inequality -- a connection whose depths we have been underestimating.
The 19-page paper paints a bleak picture, but it's a must-read for activists seeking to help steer us away from the societal disaster our system of incarceration has become. "Incarceration & Social Inequality," by Bruce Western (of Harvard) and Becky Petit (of the University of Washington), describes the sweeping injustice in our prison system as an "invisible, cumulative, intergenerational" inequality. They share depressing statistics on race, education, community and prison -- and they pinpoint an intense, isolated and not fully known form of American poverty.
They write that the inequality of incarceration is invisible because of its intense impact on a portion of the population who live outside of the public eye. It's cumulative because a lack of education plus a prison record make it nearly impossible to get a job. A track record of joblessness or informal employment make it harder to find work that society considers acceptable. More than one-third of African American men who drop out of high school will go to prison in their lives. Even for those former prisoners who do manage to find work and start careers after incarceration, earnings are impacted for decades. And this has an impact on the earner's family and community as well.
Perhaps most troubling of all is the paper's findings on the intergenerational impact of prison. As we've written here before, more than 200,000 kids in the U.S. have a mother behind bars and more than 1.7 million have a father in prison. These children grow up in the sphere of prison life, and with inherent disadvantages. The gravity of this prison-poverty cycle is hard to break, as Western and Petit show.
Writing at Slate, Sasha Abramsky points out that "this new research so clearly shows (that) locking up poor people in historically unprecedented numbers has undermined one of America's most durable, and valuable, traits — social mobility."
The intense, unequal impact of incarceration on a small sliver of the American population is undeniable. Only by addressing the root causes of this over-incarceration -- unequal criminalization, unnecessarily long sentences, the lack of indigent defense resources, etc. -- can we begin to address the inequalities deepened by the American prison boom. There's no use in looking at the past or bemoaning the present. It's time to get started on building a new system with clear pathways out of prison -- and out of poverty.

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