Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

African American Men and the Prison Industrial Complex

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

African American Men and the Prison Industrial Complex

Article excerpt

Introduction

African American men--poor and not so poor--have had a tumultuous relationship with the United States Criminal Justice System. This relationship is longstanding (Brunson 2008). In the summer of 2009, prominent Harvard professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. experienced being handcuffed and arrested as he attempted to enter his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A white female passerby thought his behavior was suspicious, called 911, and the incident brought a national spotlight to this issue of arresting African American men on the basis of a hunch. This practice is what is routinely referred to as racial profiling or in the vernacular of the times--driving while black.

Many criminologists, journalists, and social commentators (Alexander, 2010; Lapido, 2001; Schlosser, 1998) have paid attention to this on-going problem of the mass incarceration of African American men that began in 1980 and persists to the present day. Scholars, journalists and social commentators have done a good job recognizing that mass incarceration devastates the lives of African American men. Yet, their analysis often remains at the individual level; the impact of incarceration on individual men (Davis, 1998). What receives less attention is the role that mass incarceration has on the families of these men; the women who make weekly bus trips often 8 hours each way to visit their male partners, the women--mothers, aunts and grandmothers--who raise the children their incarcerated husbands, boyfriends, brothers and sons--usually as single parents. And, even less attention is paid to the impact that mass incarceration has on the African American community that is depleted of resources and capital when vast numbers of its members are incarcerated. What we find in our research is that even fewer criminologists, journalists or social commentators are paying enough attention to the fact that the majority of these same men will eventually be released from prison and the vast majority will return to the same communities (Travis, 2005) putting additional strain on already scarce resources as they attempt to garner the assistance they need to successfully reenter the free world (Hattery and Smith, 2010). This paper fills the gap and contributes to the literature that demonstrates the direct relationship between mass incarceration, the impact on families and communities and the struggles these men have as they attempt to re-enter the "free world."

This paper will examine the linkages between the mass incarceration of African American men by the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and the consequent bleeding of capital--specifically financial, human, social and political--from the men themselves, their families, and the African American community at large. Specifically, we will expand our previous argument that the PIC exploits African American men by extracting their labor for less than fair market wages (Hattery and Smith 2008), and argue here that the PIC extracts the capital of African American families and communities through the practice of mass incarceration and mass removal of African American men. Thus, the actual experience of a given inmate--whether his individual labor is extracted by the PIC or not--becomes irrelevant; it is simply his incarceration and removal from his family and community alone that amounts to the depletion of capital from African American families and communities. Second, we will consider the impact of the PIC on the reentry process. When a thousand men return annually to a community like our own and the majority return to a small subset of neighborhoods and public housing developments, and when these men face tremendous barriers to finding employment and stable housing the stress and strain this places on the agencies already providing services is extraordinary. Thus, the removal of men depletes community capital but their return does as well. These complex and interlocking issues are the focus of this paper. …

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