‘This Is Life With Lisa Ling’ recently featured a show called ‘Fatherless Towns’. It’s a show about men who are incarcerated and in hopes of rehabilitating them, the prison is providing them with parenting classes on how to be better more present parents. It is done with the hope that if these men had something to go home to and someone besides themselves to care for, the recidivism rate will decline. The end of the program is celebrated with holding a father-daughter dance inside the jail. It was a day where the men could dress up in a suit and tie (for some it was the first time in their lives they’ve put on a suit) and their daughters wearing the prettiest frock they’ve got. They celebrate by having a sit down dinner followed by a dance afterwards. This is not just any regular sit down dinner. Etiquette coaches are brought in to teach the inmates how to conduct themselves in a formal dinner setting, how to use utensils and where to put their napkin and such. It was sweet to watch battle worn inmates trying to negotiate a dining table setting. The scene was moving and touching, but it’s also sad. It is sad that our society has failed a whole demographic of people: young black men.
I didn’t view this show from the perspective that these repeat offenders have failed society and failed themselves, society has failed them. This program is offered in tn Richmond, Virginia, to mostly non-violent drug offenders. The 12 fathers enrolled in this program all have some sort of substance abuse problem and 11 are Black and one is Latino. Most come from fatherless homes themselves and all of them are repeat offenders. Some have lived in jail cells longer than they’ve lived on the outside. All of them have multiple children, some with multiple women. When they go to prison, they leave behind a trail of broken hearts and tears and they’ve just repeated a cycle which was just perpetuated onto them. They are leaving their children fatherless.
Each of their stories almost start out the same, they were born to a single parent home, their fathers either left before they were born or left the family or died when they were very young. And most of them had happy childhoods being raised by their mothers and grandparents, but trouble always found them at the crossroads of going from child to a man, the critical age where a father’s influence on a boy can make or break a man, was not present. One man, Terrence Williams, he was a straight A student, he got a scholarship to play football at college, all he had to was graduate high school. But he fell in with the wrong crowd in his senior year, started smoking pot and drinking, he failed two classes and failed to graduate from high school and down went his dreams. Since then, it’s been a cycle of drug abuse and criminal activity. He became a drug dealer and his life revolved around getting arrested, being charged and getting incarcerated. He has 5 children with 4 different women, he wants to do better for those children. Being fatherless himself, he has no frame of reference on how to be a father, forget good or bad father, just a father. He told Lisa Ling that he attempted to turn his life around many times, on his own, but he had no ‘roadmap’ and had no idea what to do or where to start, so he just fell back into the same trap.
Another man, Aziz Scott, is in his 50s, his first incarceration was 14 years old, one year after his father died, he begun selling drugs to make ends meet. He estimates that he’s been to jail at least 20 times, he was described as ‘institutionalized’ meaning he no longer knew how to live life on the outside. When he heard that he was shocked into making a real change. Getting treatment for his addiction issues, getting clean, staying clean and improving himself on the inside to be a better man, namely to be a better father to his two youngest children. He looked to them as his salvation, his last chance to make things right as he failed his two older children.
During the program, the thing I heard over and over again was the only they could make ends meet in Richmond,Virginia was to sell drugs. There were no other viable employment opportunities for high school dropouts, definitely none for a high school dropout with a record. Even when Aziz Scott was arrested and sent to jail, his family’s finances suffered because his drug dealing money supported the meagre wages she made (her job was not disclosed).
The over policing and heavy handed sentencing of nonviolent drug offenders (so-called War on Drugs) have disportionately affected Black and Latino communities. These families do not have the resources to hire a lawyer to reduce the charges and get probation for first time offenders. These boys are immediately sent to jail for their crimes and their issues not addressed, whether it’s addiction or continuing their lapsed secondary education or getting counseling for their non-addiction related issues. They get released after they’ve served their time, but because of their record and not having a high school diploma, their chances of getting any job, never mind a living wage job is non-existent. So they go back to streets, doing the only job available to them, which is drug dealing. Due to their record, the social safety net does not protect them because if you have a record you are prohibited from getting any type of state assistance or welfare. This leaves their wives, girlfriends and other relatives carrying the burden of raising their children, whether they are incarcerated or not. Aziz Jones’s wife said, even if he weren’t in prison, he wasn’t all that helpful with the care of their children. This is not to say these men don’t love their children, they very much do, but loving your children and knowing how to parent them are totally different things.
According to the Criminal Justice Fact Sheet from NAACP, below are some statistics, and they are sobering:
Incarceration Trends in America
- From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people
- Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners.
- Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, 1 in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent of the population is under some form of correctional control
Racial Disparities in Incarceration
- African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
- African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
- Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
- According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
- One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
- 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
- Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).
Drug Sentencing Disparities
- About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug
- 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
- African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
- African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). (Sentencing Project)
By reading the numbers alone, with all other factors being equal, the criminal justice system in America is racially biased. Black and Latino communities are policed more, therefore leading to more arrests, they are not more criminal in nature than White people. Due to socio-economic disparity between Whites and Black/Latinos, Black and Latinos do not have access to the resources to which they can minimize their offense. A relative of ours got into police trouble, a shoplifting case, because it was his first offense, he was offered probation, he took it but after he completed his probation, his father hired a defense attorney to expunge his record as is his right to do, so that moving forward his record will be clean and it won’t impede his career opportunities. He was only 19 years old at the time of his arrest. This is information in which indigent families don’t have access to and law enforcement officers are definitely not going to tell them about this resource available to them.
White relatives of mine whom reside in an exclusive White neighborhood in New England, they were habitual pot smokers as teenagers, not once were they arrested for smoking pot or possession. The laughed it off like it was one big joke, a rite of passage for their youth, killing unnecessary brain cells. Hell, we all sat around and laughed about it. The only smart thing they did was not get behind a wheel when they were wasted, but aside from that, like many affluent white kids with not enough ambition and too much time on their hands, the passed their time smoking pot. And when their parents finally had enough and gave them a swift kick in the pants, they cleaned up their act, went to college and got a career, never once facing any trouble with law enforcement.
As I watch this program of repeat offenders, I don’t see them as fuck-ups. Society may have written them off, their families may have written them off in some regards, but I see them as people who were misguided as children, children who never got the right kind of guidance and as a result went astray. When they went astray, the law enforcement system instead of helping them or rehabilitating them, only punished them. There’s no problem punishing someone for a crime they committed, but it’s a big problem if it’s just punishment without rehabilitation. Prison is often referred to as a ‘correctional facility’, which implies that some sort of rehabilitation should be offered, but most prisons systems do not offer rehabilitation systems. So, it’s a vicious cycle of arrest, incarceration and reoffend. For these 12 lucky inmates who got to be part of this program, they had to ‘apply’ to get into the program and prove that the were worthy and ready to better themselves. All inmates should be offered a chance at rehabilitation, but if they decline it, that’s on them, but it should always be available to them.
There is something very wrong with the criminal justice system in America, when a country is affluent as America, where we are 5% of the world’s population but holds 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. It’s either Americans are pathological criminals or the criminal justice system is flawed. And then you take into account that 58% of the prison population is Black or Latino, when Black and Latinos comprise only 25% of our population, the system is rigged to incarcerate black and brown people.