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Mass Incarceration: An Experiment Gone Wrong (or Right?)

“A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals. “ Fyodor Dostoevsky

Europe had the “Great Confinement” of the 17th century when the government legislated to move the poor and the insane into correctional houses and mental institutions for the first time. The Soviet Union had its Gulag which is a system of forced labor camps where many humans were required to work up to 14 hours a day sometimes in extreme weather, died of starvation, diseased or exhaustion and many were just executed. America has what is called “mass incarceration” and guess who makes up the majority of its population?

The meaning of “mass imprisonment,” according to David Garland, “implies a rate of imprisonment and size of prison population that is markedly above the historical and comparative norm for a society of this type.” Mass incarceration is set to have its 50th birthday in 2023. And given that media and government has us all believing so called “bad” people must go to jail and go to jail for long lengths of time, it doesn’t seem like mass incarceration will be seeing the Grim Reaper anytime soon. Mass incarceration was birthed in the 1970’s. Being that we started the experiment, it would seem we should be able to stop it. But can we?

Many African American men went from being the rightful inhabitants of this beautiful land, to being enslaved, to begging to be a freeman, to being free, to being marginalized by Jim Crow, to now being mass incarcerated.

Seventy-percent of African American men who do not finish high school and are from poor neighborhoods will be incarcerated at some point in their existence. And even after being released from prison or jail, they then face another barrier to living free— mass stigmatization.

Mass stigmatization is those stories we have told ourselves and are told by others that we believe about who we are or have to be as people who have gone to prison or who are in prison. Just because you went to jail or prison doesn’t mean you have to be the defeated character in the story society tells you is true for you. You don’t have to animate other people’s stories about you. You can flip the script of who you are. Just ask Wallo267 and Wall Street Trapper!

But mass stigmatization and the stories these stigmas create within don’t just affect the incarcerated but affect the families of the incarcerated. The incarcerated endure the mental and physical abuse from being confined, but the families of the incarcerated also face the mental, emotional and societal abuse of having family members incarcerated.

Mass incarceration is human suffering and we as the members of society are the inflictors of the pain. And we do it righteously masked behind the laws that many times are only legislated and put into effect to marginalize, harass and invade the personal, privacy and rights of being human. And those of us that most easily find ourselves violating these laws happen to also be those whose families have a long history of mental, physical and emotional abuse in this society. Could mass incarceration be just another form of abuse but where the actual abuser has camouflaged its abuse behind neutrally worded laws? And the abused has been naively caught in a trap of his or her own limited thinking about himself?

In an article written in Science, Lee and Wilderman argue that mass incarceration may have more harmful effects on family members of inmates than the inmates themselves. Mainly because

  • Family members did not choose for their family members to violate any laws;

  • Family members suffer indirect consequences of mass incarceration; and

  • Incarcerated individuals and their families may have misaligned interests which makes it difficult for policy makers to make effective policies that help both, without detrimentally impacting the other.

Many families who have incarcerated family members have had deep disadvantages prior to any incarceration. These deep disadvantages include low financial resources, poor or untreated mental health issues, cognitive inflexibility, behavioral challenges, untreated and unrealized emotional trauma, and a lack of self-belief in a right to be here, live free and live a great life. And these are all brain functions that impact decision making. And its the decisions that cause people to run afoul of the criminal system. These disadvantages existed prior to the criminal system but the criminal system reinforces them and perpetuates them from generation to generation.

Incarceration tend to shape family structure and function. When men go to jail, they generally tend to become uninvolved in the family life. Mainly because they can’t be present with their families, but mostly because emotionally they believe they shouldn’t because of their own inner turmoil and they want to avoid imposing the stigma their families will have from association with an inmate. So they choose to just stay away.

Many of them never cognitively understand how going to jail, if they are already there, can be flipped to benefit themselves while they are there and their families when they are released. But to flip mental stories of imprisonment that are birthed in your mind takes a new emotional and expressive awareness about yourself. But the process to get there is extremely hard and takes mental and emotional dedication that is most times hard to do for people who already lack an unhealthy self-belief. So many inmates, especially African American men, succumb to the silence of the jail cell that whispers a reminder, “you are where you belong…..”

Men make up 93.2% of the prison population.

Incarceration of the fathers also decrease father involvement in the family dynamic, which in turn, unfortunately, makes mothers more harsh in their parenting, more depressed and more financially strapped. Research shows mothers tend to have a higher chance of physical limitations once a family member goes to prison. And children of an incarcerated parent tend to be less prepared for school, tend to be stigmatized and mistreated by their teachers and tend to have significant emotional, mental and behavior issues, especially aggression.

Mass Incarceration must end. It’s only almost 50 years old. But it takes us to join together and create something new. I would say kill the old system and I am not saying we should not try but I don’t think that will work because the old system is our current reality and we believe in it.

We could try to get politicians to legislate to reduce long sentences, eliminate solitude confinement, and provide counseling, emotional awareness and expression treatment, cognitive therapy, and financial assistance to both the incarcerated and their families. But my awareness of reality is greater than my hope, and I know many of us see the world only through the eyes of the dopamine breaking news hits from CNN and the save our country from outsiders FOX divide. So the mass incarceration system is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean you or your family member have to ever see the inside of anybody’s jail or prison.

The new model starts with you. The experiment stops with you. The mass incarceration system is the old model built on an experiment gone wrong or right (depending on who you ask) but is still strong, so the new model has to be stronger. And we get there by focusing more on the health of our brains so we can each use our brains optimally to live our best lives in this world despite neutral sounding laws and systems that have bias impact. And if we each improve our brain health, mass incarceration will eventually disappear from whence it came 50 years ago.

I leave you with the words of Buckminister Fuller, “you never change things by fighting existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

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