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Mass Incarceration is a Symptom, of a greater Disease…

There have been countless articles, books, symposiums and documentaries regarding the subject of “Mass Incarceration” and specifically regarding the disproportionate number of Black males incarcerated in the United States. Of course, these are very serious issues and seeking solutions for these issues are essential; however, the reality is that these issues are only symptoms of a larger problem. This actuality was exemplified in a recent visit to Cook County Jail by Nick Cannon December of 2018. Mr. Cannon Stated:

“Inside with my guys Today! Cook County! In Chicago Trying to bring a few smiles for the holidays,” Cannon wrote. “Don’t forget about our family locked down in the system.”[1]

While it is admirable and commendable that Mr. Cannon took the time to bring some smiles and inspiration to men that are locked up, especially over the holidays, his presence and words brought to mind the concentrated level of attention that is devoted to those incarcerated and the lack of attention to the masses of young Black men that are not incarcerated. Specifically, our lack of focusing on and dealing with the underlying socioeconomic, sociopolitical and cultural factors that help put people in the position of more easily making the wrong choices to end up becoming part of the criminal justice system. Clearly, this is not an “either / or” situation, however; it is a dichotomy that needs to be examined.

We do have the resources to both help position people to be able to make better choices to avoid prison, and at the same time we should be doing things to assist those already incarcerated so that they are prepared and able to make better choices after their release to ensure that they don't come back into prison custody. However; the focus from the neoliberal anti-racism sociopolitical view is to focus on the symptom, framing this as a “what we can do for the African American constituency” issue. Conversely, the radical right so-called conservatives have taken hold of this narrative to further present any movement regarding “prison reform” as throwing a bone to the African American community; with Black conservatives are embracing this as a victory as well. However; in focusing on this, we're treating a symptom and not a disease.

This fact is obvious when looking at the forest and not simply this patch of trees, that the rate of incarceration of African-American males is a symptom of a greater disease. Focusing on this symptom, utilizing hashtag catch phrases like “school the prison pipeline” and “the new Jim Crow” or “the new slavery” have caught hold, causing people to focus on this this issue and elevate it to the point of an epidemic, yet often missing the overall causes of this epidemic. Ultimately the problem comes down to multiple systemic, institutional and cultural failures within American society. No matter how much prison reform we do; if we don’t do political, economic, society and culture reform, people will continue to be put in the position where the wrong choices that land people in prison are the easier ones to make. Prison reform outside of greater societal reforms, just won’t help the overall symptom get any better. Simply put, prison reform without society reform will still give us prisons bursting at the seams. We can rehabilitate and reform individuals (if that is the overall goal of prison reform, and that has yet to be seen) but if we do not have fundamental reforms in some of the underlying systems and institutions that serve our society; we will just replace the bodies we let out with new bodies coming into the prison system. Real solutions must be holistic solutions, and three areas must be addressed in the greater society if we want better outcomes. The first reality we must understand is ultimately race is not the primary factor that is causing for the disparity of African Americans who are in prisons. Yes, racial biases and systemic and institutional issues predicated on White supremacy in American society for the basis of where these multiple issues thrive in, but the race of the people getting locked up is not the reason that crime is disproportionate in these communities. In other words, Black people aren’t prone to crime because we are Black. This is not an issue of genetics or of ancestry, this is a result of socioeconomic, sociopolitical and cultural issues that have a context in the social reality of race.

Socioeconomic: Looking at the areas where most of the African Americans in the prison system come from; metropolitan, urban, suburban or rural, we find that these areas have certain economic issues in common. Low job opportunity and low performing schools are some of these common issues. Also, lack of business opportunities in these areas with limited financial service institutions; such as banks as opposed to currency exchanges, exacerbate these issues. Until there are good jobs made available in these communities or at the very least a better infrastructure of public transportation so that people can get to these jobs in an efficient manner; the underground economies will continue to thrive. Absence of access to the tools that foster a positive economy historically creates a breeding ground for an underground economy.

Deficiency of economic opportunities has enabled a cascade effect, it directly relates to poor health care (people unemployed or employed in low income jobs either have no health care or health care provided by Medicaid programs.) This also leads to lack of mental health services in these communities, this lack of access to proper mental health services directly impacts the state and federal prison systems receiving a high proportion of persons with mental health needs into their custody. Prison systems now are tasked with providing mental health which further exemplifies treating a symptom and not a disease. Dealing with the mental health needs of people before they enter the system would be something that would take the onus from this simply being a “prison” issue. Also, providing mental health services to people after they leave the custody of the prison system would reduce the amount of people returning to prison. This is just one level of a societal response beyond prison reform that would address the larger problem.

Better education, economic opportunity, and better access to health care are some of the resources that would create a better environment in many of the areas where the majority of prisoners in the state and federal systems come from that would lower the amount of people entering and returning to the prison system.

Sociopolitical: The people in these affected communities that suffer the most from the crime often associated with an underground economy, and who deal with the consequences of that crime (as victims or becoming locked up for committing the crimes) are generally not properly represented by their elected officials. Off course that argument can be made for a lot of communities in the United States, but what needs to happen in these affected communities is that voters need to hold elected officials accountable. Accountable to focus on fixing the socioeconomic problems that are in these neighborhoods. This means voting for candidates, not parties, that want to be part of the communities they serve with a vested interest to see them succeed. The so-called “Black Conservatives” of the new Trump era often broadcast the idea that African Americans should not be beholden to the Democratic party. Putting forth the narrative the Democrats in cities that they have controlled such as Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, etc. have given nothing to these communities aside from historical high crime rates, underperforming schools and limited economic opportunity for Blacks.

While there is truth to that position, this over simplification ignores the fact that during Republican federal administrations like under Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan; there were policies forwarded that exacerbated these socioeconomic issues in these communities. Basically, if the Democrats are part of the problem then so are the Republicans. These communities need to focus on candidates that want to do the job irrespective of party affiliation; and when in office of these elected officals do not deliver, they need to be put out of office. These consequences put elected officials’ feet to the fire. It is more than voting, it is taking the step of making demands of and holding elected officials accountable.

Cultural: This goes to the central point that Mr. Cannon’s visit to Cook County Jail inspired this writing. The culture of focusing on the incarcerated to the point of missing the underlying factors of what is getting people locked up in the first place, and further to the point; missing the underlying factors that causes people to return to prison is like a serpent chasing its own tail. It is an exercise in futility because it keeps allowing for the factors that keep feeding the very machine of the system that we are trying to dismantle. Of course, we are to be concerned about people who are incarcerated, this is not proposing an either / or; people have enough mental energy to manage multiple priorities.

The fact is, that we in the African American community have allowed for some negative lowest common denominator cultural realities to define Blackness and these standards have been unhealthy for the community. It is clear to anyone as eyes that these cultural realities that we have allowed to be hard coded contribute to people making the wrong choices that land them in prison to begin with. We have normalized things like drug dealing as a necessary evil for some people to survive instead of calling it out as people poisoning the community. Minimizing this type of crime helps feed the criminal justice system. We can complain that marijuana is not legal, but we need to also realize that the drug problem goes far beyond marijuana. And in fact, much of the violent crime in these Black communities is driven by the underground economy of the drug market. The bottom line is we can have compassion for people who feel cornered or who are in fact cornered by the multiple factors that we discussed that help facilitate their bad choices; but we should not normalize or equate those bad choices with “blackness.”

Ultimately, until we deal with things in a holistic fashion, no amount of reform of prisons will stop the people entering and re-entering American prisons.


[1] Staff Writer, “Nick Cannon Poses With Inmates at Cook County Jail on Instagram,” NBC Chicago News 5, Dec 21, 2018, accessed Jan 5, 2019,

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