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Black families imperiled by the growth of nation’s prison industrial complex

Editor’s note: This is the second of three excerpts from a major study conducted by the Council on Crime and Justice of Minnesota’s criminal justice system. The study, “Justice, Where Art Thou?

Editor’s note: This is the second of three excerpts from a major study conducted by the Council on Crime and Justice of Minnesota’s criminal justice system. The study, “Justice, Where Art Thou? A Framework for Minnesota’s Future,” generated a report, recommendations for improvements, and a collection of community essays and research papers. Today’s installment highlights the second of three essays commenting on study findings. Today’s essay is by Dr. Rose M. Brewer, Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of African-American & African Studies at the University of Minnesota. To see the entire report, visit the group’s website.

Dr. Rose M. Brewer


My focus here is specifically on black family structure, and even though the analysis of racial/ethnic families in the United States includes multiple groups, my research and writing centers on black families. I contend that these families are the most imperiled by the growth of the prison industrial complex in the United States (although many communities, especially brown and native are at risk).

Additionally, I argue in these remarks that crime policy, prison policy, the structural growth of the prison industrial complex and racial/ethnic family structure are deeply interconnected. I contend that crime and justice policies in their articulation have little, if any, systemic edge and critique of societal structures. This must change. Responses to crime have been almost completely reduced to individualistic explanations that collapse a structural problem into individual and community misbehavior. I mince no words here.

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The source of the incarceration ills are not fundamentally rooted in bad African-American families, men, women or children, but in a set of broad scale policy and societal shifts that put at risk for incarceration large segments of the African-American population. This holds no less true for the state of Minnesota, where the incarceration rate for blacks is 26.8 times that for whites. Minnesota is also a state where black women are imprisoned at five times their population rate. This translates into the fact that 25 percent of the women incarcerated in Minnesota are black with broad-scale consequences for black family structure. In fact, research has shown these things are true about family structure and the growth of the prison, industrial complex:

1. More than half of incarcerated black men with children lived with those children before incarceration. Any emotional and economic support provided by the fathers has been removed. The family’s structure is destabilized by the removal of these fathers.

2. The growth of female-headed families is connected to the deep sex ratio imbalances and the loss of marriageable men in many black communities. This is an important factor in the growth of female, single-parent family structures.

3. The explosive rate of black female incarceration is creating an even greater family structure crisis, destabilizing fragile families further. These women have traditionally held families together. They are less able to do so today, given removal from households through incarceration. This growth in female incarceration in states like Minnesota is fueled by mandatory sentencing laws, giving long sentences to mothers. The majority of black women are locked up for nonviolent property and drug crimes.

4. The explosive growth of foster care thus flows from the increasing fragility of black families in the wake of mass incarceration. About half of all children in foster care today are black, and a disproportionate number have incarcerated parents.

5. As more and more black juveniles are sucked into the criminal justice system, another hit is taken on black families. The removal of these young people from families can be as jarring to the family structure as the removal of mothers and fathers.


Rethinking the Framing of Crime and Justice Policy in the Wake of Mass Incarceration
I’d like to turn once again to the questions given to the respondents and turn the assumptions on their head. My fundamental point is that it is not family structure per se that is causative in the explosion in crime and incarceration, BUT the devastating impact of crime and prison policy on black family structures. These policies have to be transformed if healthy black and other racial ethnic families will be built. Indeed, it is imperative that crime and justice policies craft a systemic analysis targeting deeply rooted racialized inequality in the U.S. These historical inequalities have taken new form in the 21st century, what Loic Wacquant refers to as the movement from slavery to mass incarceration.

The mass incarceration of African-Americans goes far beyond individual culpability and black family incapacity. It is a structural reality that places the societal commitment to racial, gender and class justice in the U.S. off the agenda. In fact, what has occurred is the growth of a prison industrial complex in the state of Minnesota, the country and, increasingly, globally.

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[Angela] Davis describes the prison-industrial complex as: a vast set of institutions from the obvious ones, such as the prisons and the various places of incarceration such as jails, “jails in Indian country,” immigrant detention centers, and military prisons to corporations that profit from prison labor or from the sale of products that enable imprisonment, media, other government agencies…

And as Davis powerfully asserts, The law does not care whether this individual had access to good education or not, or whether he/she lives under impoverished conditions because companies in his/her communities have shut down and moved to a third world country, or whether previously available welfare payments have vanished. The law does not care about the conditions that lead some communities along a trajectory that makes prison inevitable.

The basic number facts are chilling as well. Roberts provides the following data in her important essay:

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, and over half of it black. The number of incarcerated Americans increased 500 percent in the last 30 years, from fewer than 200,000 inmates to 1.2 million in 1997.

In a decade that number has doubled again to more than 2.2 million people. These numbers are fueled by locking up young black men. The standard explanation is that black men commit a large proportion of the crime. This preferred explanation, of course, is imbedded in the ideology that bad family culture or bad seed individual behaviors are driving the numbers. The evidence does not support this. Indeed, longer prison sentences for drug dealing, a very broad arrest net for minor violations in Minnesota and nationally, have fueled the gross expansion of the prison population, especially the black male imprisoned population. And as sobering is the increasingly number of black women caught up in mass incarceration. Their numbers are increasing more quickly than the black male population. In fact, crime is down overall and sentencing and drug policies that target nonviolent crimes have fueled the bulk of the growth in mass incarceration, matched by the growth in the private prison and the development of prisons for profit.

Of course the roots of mass incarceration among the black population are deeper than crime policy per se. Indeed, black vulnerability to crime and the subsequent deleterious impact on family structure is the end product of a more insidious process of educational exclusion, poor if any job possibilities, and the general economic crisis in the context of 21st century racism in U.S. society. The confluence of these social forces are crucial to the assault on Black family structures and the growth of families headed by women.

And today there is a new wrinkle to changing black family structure. As the number of incarcerated women increases, the risk of foster care for black children has gone up dramatically. Dorothy Roberts sheds key light on this issue. Her research indicates that while young black children are about 17 percent of the nation’s youth, they are now about half of the children in foster care. This explosion in foster care has been fueled by the destabilization of families and the mass incarceration of black men and women.

Punitive policy for black families
Thus we’re dealing with punitive policy for black families. Indeed as [Dorothy] Roberts notes, the explosion of foster care and imprisonment “work in tandem with one another.” We do know that incarceration, the growth of the prison industrial complex, gender, race and poverty have a devastating impact on Black family structures. With regard to the implications for black families in Minnesota, former Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner, Cheryl Ramstad Hvass, observed “that a lot of children are without fathers because of these numbers, and this increases their own chances for being incarcerated.” I would add, too, that many children are without mothers because of incarceration — with untold consequences for these families.

Again, the racial/ethnic family structure questions must be turned on their heads. Rather than assuming family structure is the core contributor to the growth in crime and incarceration, policy makers must consider the sobering fact that these families and communities are being devastated because of the mass incarceration of more than a million black men and women. Rather than the overarching assumption that family structure leads to crime and incarceration, the question must be how have deeply rooted systemic racial, class and gender inequalities led to the racialization of crime and the lock-up in the United States of the largest number of people in the world?

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The toll such incarceration has placed on families is chilling. At base is the punitive state, the state that locks away men, women, boys and girls far too often for the most minimal of crimes.

In sum, crime and justice policy and the growth of the prison industrial complex over the past few decades have produced deep consequences for black families. We must view this systemically. To say the problem lies overarchingly within the cultural practices and values of Black families is a profound misspecification.

Rose M. Brewer, Ph.D., is the Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of African-American & African Studies at the University of Minnesota.

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