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Five Facts We All Need to Know About the Intersections of Race and Mass Incarceration

Mass incarceration is a highly complex issue that has deep, historical roots. Paired with considerations around racial inequity, it becomes even more historical in nature. According to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, many people don’t know that racist policy changes during the 1960’s and the criminalization of social issues like poverty, mental illness and homelessness (not an actual increase in crime), was what contributed to even higher rates of incarceration among Black and Latino men. If you are looking for a deeper understanding around the issues of racism and mass incarceration, these are the top five facts you need to know:

1. As evidenced by the below Harvard University graph, Black and Latino men are at an even higher rate of vulnerability to incarceration when they do not have a high school diploma or a GED. Multiple things contribute to this, including disproportionate poverty rates in Black and Latino households and disproportionate rates of having a parent behind bars.

Figure 4. Black men with low education levels are at high risk for incarceration, much higher than white men with similar education levels.

Note: Figure shows the cumulative probability of male incarceration by age 30 to 34.

Source: B. Pettit, B. Sykes, and B. Western, “Technical Report on Revised Population Estimates and NLSY79 Analysis Tables for the Pew Public Safety and Mobility Project” (Harvard University, 2009).

2. According to the National Institutes of Health, having an incarcerated parent puts Black families in the position of being more susceptible to economic hardship, greater difficulty missing basic needs and greater need to rely on social services. According to Harvard University, this difficulty can continue after the incarcerated parent is released, and they struggle to find work due to their record.

3. As reported by the U.S. Department of Justice , roughly 65,000 incarcerated persons are released from jail every year and two thirds will be re-incarcerated within three years. The USDOJ states that this is because many people have no safety nets; such as jobs, places to live, or spare money to ease the transition back into society, so it becomes very difficult not to resort to certain behaviors to get money out of desperation.

4. Mass incarceration fuels poverty, especially in Black and Latino communities. This is because; 1) mass incarceration fuels job instability, 2) Results in less lifetime earnings and less intergenerational wealth 3) Removes primary earners and drains assets, 4) Limits access to public benefits 5) Disrupts the social and economic fabric of neighborhoods.

5. There are many things that can be done to advocate for dismantling mass incarceration; this includes policy work at the state and federal levels, advocating for more robust college funding opportunities, and ending the employment discrimination of people with prison records. Great ways to take the first step toward this are volunteering with nonprofits that work towards dismantling mass incarceration, like Sex Worker’s Outreach Project Behind Bars, or making a donation, however small, to SWOP Behind Bars.

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