Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Families of Incarcerated African American Men: The Impact on Mothers and Children

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Families of Incarcerated African American Men: The Impact on Mothers and Children

Article excerpt

Introduction

Radical changes in crime control and sentencing has led to an unprecedented buildup of the United States prison system. Unbelievably, by the end of 2002 the number of inmates in the nation's jails and prisons exceeded two million inmates (Roberts 2004,1272). While the imprisonment rate varies widely by state we know that today there are approximately 2,266,832 prisoners in US jails and prisons.

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Today's imprisonment numbers are five times as high as in 1972 and this surpasses that of all other nations around the world. The sheer scale and acceleration of U.S. prison growth has no parallel in western societies. Locking up young African American males who are grossly overrepresented in these numbers fuels this extraordinary prison expansion.

To put it another way, Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States (1977-1981) speaking at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington (Aug 28, 2013) noted that from the time he left office in 1981 through 2013 some 835,000 African-American men went to prison--five times as many when he left office. This insight, these figures as chilling as they are, reveal the deep destructive claw removing African American men from their families and leaving behind wives, mothers and children.

Moving beyond incarceration itself, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics there are overall some 7 million American citizens in the grasp of the US Criminal Justice System--including in jails, prisons and under its supervision vis-a-vis probation and parole. A large percentage of them are African American men approximately half. (1)

Literature Review and Theoretical Frameworks

Scholars think about incarceration from many different perspectives. And, though in a paper of this length we would never be able to explore them all, we will consider a range of the scholarship that focuses on incarceration and the impact it has on families. One interesting measure of the impact of incarceration is perception. In a July, 2013 Gallup poll asking about the severity of the US Justice System and how it impacts the life chances of Americans some 68% of African American said that it was negative and devastating. Only 25% of Whites agreed (http://bit.ly/11ak04y).

Such a significant difference of perspective tells us a lot about how the two-worlds -one White, the other Black--see things. All of this is analyzed by sociologist Andrew Hacker in his riveting book Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (http://amzn.to/15LxbLf) which follows on the conclusion of the Kerner Commission where the finding was "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6545/)."

Our argument in this paper is framed primarily by the race, class and gender paradigm which was largely developed by African American and multiracial feminists (Anderson 2001; Davis 1983; Hill-Collins 1994, 2004; King 1988; Zinn 2005). This theoretical paradigm rests on the assumption that systems of oppression and domination (i.e. patriarchy, capitalism, and racial domination) exist independently and are woven together in what Baca Zinn and Thornton Dill (2005) refer to as a matrix of domination. Furthermore, the race, class, and gender paradigm requires that the data be analyzed not only with attention to individual social locations but more importantly with attention to the inequality regimes (Acker 2006) that are based in the systems of patriarchy, capitalism, and racial domination.

As powerful an analytical tool as this framework is, one of the shortcomings of the use of the race, class and gender paradigm by other scholars is the tendency to focus on the individual level rather than the structural level. In other words, often the analysis focuses on the race, class, and gender of individual actors and how these status locations shape experiences. …

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