The Economic Destruction Caused by Black Mass Incarceration

12% of al prisoners worldwide are African-Americans

Last year I spoke at the penitentiary.  I talked to the guys about entrepreneurship, post prison opportunity and beginning to plan now for when they were released (those that would be) back into society.  After the meeting I was inundated with brothers who had questions and wanted me to come back and speak on the subject again. But what stunned me the most was the number of men in prison who had owned a business and were successful before incarceration.

This led me to start reflecting on some key concepts in economic development and the impact mass incarceration of Black men has in devastating the economic condition of many of our urban communities.  According to an article in the New York Times from 2003, an estimated 12% of Black men ages 24 to 30 were in prison.  This is a truly staggering number with dramatic consequences.

Think for a minute what typically occurs between the ages of 24 to 30.  Men usually:

  1. Start their career
  2. Buy a home
  3. Have a family

Now mind you I am not naive to the fact that many of the individuals that are serving time in prison would do all those things, but I argue that a significant percentage would.  So what then are the economic implications to the Black community by having 10% or more of that group being out of pocket for periods of time?

1. The flow of income is reduced in the community. This is due to the fact that when you are incarcerated the ability to get earned income and recycle dollars back into the community is eliminated.  If dollars don’t recycle and change hands in a community, businesses suffer, can’t grow and can’t employ workers.

There is a secondary consideration also.  Once you become incarcerated the likelihood of you returning to the community and becoming gainfully employed is also limited.  You have to check the box on the application. With many folks wary of hiring ex-felons the level of job and potential income is diminished for a very long time.

2. The assets of the community are diminished decreasing Black wealth.   Although we do have a traditionally lower rate of home purchasing in the Black community, this is ever further diminished by incarceration.  Because homes are the number one asset in America the inability of an incarcerated individual to acquire this asset reduces Black wealth. After prison this is still a challenge based upon the inability to acquire credit and lack of income because of the challenges of getting a job.

3. Generational poverty increases.  Incarcerated men cannot support a home and children. Research shows that single parent families are much more likely to be impoverished. This leads to lower quality educational outcomes for children, which in turn leads to less upward mobility and generational poverty as the cycle continues.

Black mass incarceration is not just a social phenomenon with societal implications. Nor is Black mass incarceration simply an issue of crime and punishment.  It is an economic issue also and one that is aiding in the devastation of Black urban core economies.  It reduces community cash flow, reduces Black wealth, and reinforces cyclical generational poverty.  We must view it from this lens also and ensure that we include Black returning citizens and their struggle in any holistic economic strategy that we develop.

By; Dell Gines