Prison System in America

VI. Invisible Punishments in the 21st Century

Entering the 21st century, a new set of dynamics has come into play that calls for an understanding of the ways in which the effects of prison on society are both quantitatively and qualitatively different from previous times. These effects have been conceptualized as collateral consequences of imprisonment and have been dubbed “invisible punishments” by scholars (see Mauer & Chesney-Lind, 2002, for an overview). They are invisible in that they are rarely acknowledged in the courtroom when they are imposed, and equally rarely assessed in public policy discussions. These themes, and their impact on individuals and communities, should be the subject of careful scrutiny by those who study prison dynamics in the 21st century. While prison has always affected the individuals who are imprisoned and their families, the scale of imprisonment now magnifies these effects and expands their scope. Further, the racial dynamics of imprisonment have become a central component of this social policy.

A. Barriers to Reintegration among Released Offenders

Once a prison term is completed, the transition back into the community is almost always difficult. Having limited connections with the world of work, for example, becomes even more problematic with the stigma of imprisonment attached to former offenders. In an economy increasingly characterized by a division between high skills/high technology and a low-skill service economy, few offenders have promising prospects for advancing up the job ladder—or even finding a spot at the bottom of it.

Over the past 30 years, policymakers have expanded the reach of punishments beyond sentencing enhancements, and have enacted a new generation of collateral sanctions that impose serious obstacles to a person’s life chances long after a sentence has been completed. Many of these obstacles are related to the war on drugs, and include a seemingly endless series of restrictions placed on those convicted of a drug offense. Depending on the state, an 18-year-old with a first-time conviction for felony drug possession now may be barred from receiving welfare benefits for life, prohibited from living in public housing, denied student loans to attend college, permanently excluded from voting, and may be deported if not a U.S. citizen. Ironically, many of these sanctions pertain only to drug offenders, not those convicted of murder, rape, and other serious violent offenses.

B. Impact on Families and Communities

A growing number of children have a parent in prison, and current estimates place this number at well over 1.5 million. But the racial dynamics of imprisonment produce a figure of between 7% and 10% or up to 1 in 10 for black children. Since this reflects a 1-day count, the proportion of black children who have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their childhood is considerably greater. Being the child of a criminal is not a status worth boasting about; shame and stigma are still the norm. One common consequence of this stigma is the severance of social ties to family and friends, which low-income families rely upon to cope with poverty and other hardships. The impact of parental incarceration will vary depending on which parent is imprisoned. Mothers in prison are far more likely to have been primary caretakers of children prior to imprisonment and were often single parents, and this dramatically impacts the children they leave behind.

In addition to the experience and stigma of parental incarceration, children in low-income minority communities now grow up with a strong likelihood of spending time in prison themselves. An estimated 1 in 3 black males born today can expect to go to prison. While they may not know these odds, their life experiences communicate this reality as they witness older brothers, cousins, parents, and neighbors cycling in and out of prison. Some contend that prison has become a “rite of passage” for young black men today and is almost welcomed as a badge of honor in certain communities. Prison is increasingly viewed as an inevitable part of the maturation process for many low-income minority children—in the same way that going to college is the norm in many middle- and upper-class communities. When there is little chance of traditional success (schools, college, jobs, marriage, etc), the often-taught value of hard work leading to success may seem unrealistic to many children in these communities.

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