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Beyond the Walls:

Collateral Community Consequences of Mass Incarceration

by Abu Jamal Teague

The U.S. holds world leadership in a way that is not enviable—by wielding its power to incarcerate. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. accounts for 25% of the planet's prisoners. Currently, there are 2.3 million individuals in this nation's prisons or jails, and another 5 million on probation or parole. Since 1970, the U.S. prison population has multiplied more than six times.

The African American community is disproportionately represented among these numbers. With less than 13% of the nation’s population, nearly one half of those who are incarcerated are African American. 21% of African American males between the ages of 25 and 44, have served a sentence at some point in their lives. At current rates, 33% of all African Americans males will go to jail or prison at some point in their lives. This compares with 16% of Hispanic males and 5% of white males.

Jails are operated by local units of government—municipalities and counties. The traditional role of jails is to provide housing for individuals pending trial, particularly “no show” risks, as well as those sentenced to terms of (usually) less than one year, and those slated to serve their sentence in a prison, but who are awaiting transfer. Prisons, which are operated by State and Federal Government, house those who have been sentenced to terms of sufficient length— making them ineligible for incarceration in a jail.

The jail population is a growing problem. Public attention has been focused on prisons, yielding a marginal slowing of the rate of prison population increase. However, similar attention has not been focused on jails. Between 2001 and 2006, prison populations grew 11%, while jail populations grew almost twice as much at 21%. The growth in the jail population is a direct consequence of its expanded role in support of mass incarceration. Jails are called upon to house State and Federal prisoners, due to overcrowding. In the last five years, there has been a significant increase in housing of drug-related offenders from 10% of inmates to 25%.

Mass incarceration slows down the criminal justice process. As a result, in 2006, 62% of people in jail had not been convicted, representing 85% of total jail population increase since 1996. More than 65% of these individuals were there due to the inability to post bail. Release on own recognizance (ROR) declined from 24% (1992) to 14% (2002). There was a 500% increase in immigration violations in the last five years.

Jails are also called upon to house the mentally ill in lieu of treatment, due to the failure of the policy of shifting responsibility from psychiatric hospitals to community treatment.

  • 60% of men and 75% of women suffer from mentally-related issues (vs. 10% of general population)
  • Suicide rate in jails is 4 times general population
  • Men involved in mental health system are 4 times as likely to be incarcerated, whereas women are 6 times as likely.

Related to the issue of mental illness is the criminalization of homelessness. Many cities are making activities that are incidental to homelessness, such as begging, “camping”, loitering, and laying in public places, a “quality of life” offense:. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, 17% of people in jail were homeless at the time of arrest and suffered from mental illness.

Female incarceration presents a special problem because of the rate of increase. In 2004, the number of incarcerated females was 8 times that of 1980. In 1977, there were 24 male prisoners for each female; in 2004, the ratio was 14:1. The most significant factor in the increase of female incarceration is drug conviction: 33% of convictions versus 20% for men.

As shocking as these numbers are, consideration of their geographic concentration is even more alarming:

  • A 1992 study, for example, showed that 72% of all of New York State prisoners came from only seven of New York City’s 55 community board districts.
  • Similarly, 53 percent of Illinois prisoners released in 2001 returned to Chicago, and 34 percent of those were concentrated in 6 of 77 Chicago communities.
  • A third study, conducted in Maryland, found that Baltimore receives 60% of the individuals released from prisons throughout the state, and that more than one-third reentered 6 out of 55 Baltimore communities.

This pattern, reflecting the geographic clustering of the twin effects of mass incarceration and inmate reentry into society is replicated in urban areas through the U.S. It brings with it a related pattern of pervasively harmful consequences on these communities, as well as on the individuals who constitute the intricately interwoven array of social networks which we term a “community.” The related processes of incarceration and reentry have been termed “enforced mobility.” These two seemingly opposite phenomena can yield a common consequence on the communities where they are disproportionately present.

Research shows that enforced mobility increases crime. Two studies find that incarceration increases crime at the neighborhood-level (Rose, Clear, Waring and Scully 2000; Lynch, Sabol, Planty and Shelley 2001). Rose et al. (2000) also find that reentry increases crime. It is likely that the intervening mechanism is the disruption of social networks, including weakened families and other institutions in the community (Rose, Clear, Waring, Scully 2000; Lynch, Sabol, Planty and Shelley 2001).

The theory of Social Disorganization explains the social mechanisms through which mass incarceration harms the African American communities where it is concentrated. Mass imprisonment:

  • damages social networks,
  • distorts social norms, and
  • destroys social citizenship

Imprisoning numerous residents from a specific community can have a decidedly negative effect of the total community because of the collective consequence of damaging a multiplicity of social networks to which the inmate might belong. Social capital is a derivative of social interaction produced through social networks, which provide the community with the capability of collective understanding and action. Weakened social networks reduce the social capital of a community.

This in turn diminishes the community’s collective efficacy, its confidence in its ability to activate or convert social ties into the achievement of collective outcomes. The decline in collective efficacy, in turn, erodes the informal mechanisms that neighbors use to prevent crime. Thus, mass incarceration promotes the precise social environment, which allows crime to thrive, by undermining the ability of the community to exercise effective social control.

Families are the building blocks of communities. The damage to social networks starts at the family level and reverberates throughout communities where the families of prisoners are concentrated. Among the harmful consequences of incarceration on families are:

  • Lost income
  • Lost assistance with child care / rearing
  • Additional expenses related to supporting incarcerated family member
  • Additional expenses related to maintaining contact with incarcerated family members
  • Stress from worry about the inmate’s well being
  • Stress from tension among family members as they struggle to survive the consequences of incarceration
  • Potential disruption in the maintenance of stable relationships.

Children suffer disproportionately from the burden of incarceration experienced by families. Among incarcerated individuals, 55% of men and 65% of women have minor children, and over half (58%) of the minor children are less than 10 years old.

Among the short term effects on children are:

  • Feelings of shame
  • Social stigma
  • Loss of financial support
  • Weakened ties to the parent
  • Changes in family composition
  • Poor school performance
  • Increased delinquency
  • Increased risk of abuse or neglect

However, of greater enduring consequences are the long term effects, some of which are:

  • Questioning of parental authority
  • Increased dependency
  • Maturational regression
  • Impaired ability to cope with future stress or trauma
  • Disruption of development
  • Negative perceptions of police and the legal system

The cumulative impact of these effects produces a susceptibility to intergenerational patterns of criminal behavior. Two statistics poignantly testify to this propensity. Individuals who, during childhood, had an incarcerated parent are six times as likely to also be incarcerated. In addition, of all juveniles in detention in 2002, half had a parent who had been in jail or prison.

The impact of enforced mobility has cultivated a normalization of prison within the community life of many impoverished urban areas. It has even implanted the prison ethos within certain population segments – particularly youth – in these areas. Imprisonment is now a key social institution in many African American neighborhoods, wielding a pervasive authority relative to the development of norms.

Because nearly all of the children in these communities have some exposure to prisons’ tentacles, and all-to-many may realistically anticipate being grasped by these tentacles at some point in their lives, prisons are a dramatic component of the urban socialization process, a part of some sub-cultural rites of passage. Imprisonment ceases to be an outcome experienced by a few individuals. It translates into the perception of an outcome to which whole segments of the community are subject.

In addition, mass incarceration disproportionately removes men from urban area communities, distorting gender ratios into abnormal dimensions, yielding a disfiguring effect on gender norms. The perceived profound shortage of men reduces the normal sway that women possess in intimate relationships. This in turn may cause some women to adjust their standards in terms of acceptable partners, and can even render them more susceptible to male exploitation. Incarcerated men, on the other hand, have to confront the actuality of a disruption and the possibility of a destruction of family relationships during their period of incarceration.

At the aggregate level, through a seemingly coordinated system of felony disenfranchisement, mass incarceration dramatically constrains the participation of African American communities in the mainstream political economy. Forty-eight states deny inmates voting rights during the time they are incarcerated. Thirty-seven states disenfranchise felons while they are in prison, as well as when they are on probation or parole. In fourteen states, some or all felons who have completed their obligations to the criminal justice system still cannot vote. Three of these states disenfranchise felons for life.

As a consequence, nearly one in seven (13.1%) African American males of voting age were disenfranchised (2000), substantially diluting African American communities’ voting power. This compares with 2.3% among the general population. In all probability, the percentage of disenfranchised African Americans has increased in proportion to the escalation in incarceration since these statistics were garnered.

A glimpse at history places felony disenfranchisement in its true perspective:

  • In 1865, the Civil War ended, and former Confederate States were put under Military rule.
  • In 1872, there were 324 African Americans elected to legislative offices in former Confederate States.
  • In 1890, Mississippi led the Southern way of passing laws disenfranchising individuals convicted of crimes thought to be committed by AfricanAmericans.
  • In 1900, not one African American was elected to legislative office in former Confederate States.

Felony disenfranchisement is just one component caused by the redistribution of political power resulting from mass incarceration. Since the Census Bureau counts inmates in the areas in which the prison is located, the population often increases in predominantly white, rural districts where prisons are located, generating a redistribution of government aid and legislative representation to these areas and away from the African American communities from which most of the inmates come. By denying formerly incarcerated individuals the opportunity to participate in citizen processes (voting, jury service, holding public office), mass incarceration reinforces internal social norms that treat these processes as illegitimate, as well as the external perception of these communities as outside the national polity.

Mass incarceration promotes, within the impacted community, a negative picture of public institutions in general, and the criminal justice system in particular, which heightens communities’ sense of civic isolation. These negative perceptions, in turn, produce a sense of political uselessness because community members become less inclined to function within the civic sphere and are more estranged from the civic community. The tragic consequence is that the political activism, which can remedy the underlying cause of the social malaise, is rendered seemingly out of reach from the affected citizenry.

The tenets of Social Disorganization theory posit that mass incarceration damages social networks and undermines the resources required by communities to positively impact the political process through the organization and utilization of local institutions that challenge repressive or oppressive policies. This tangible obstruction to political capability generates and buttresses social norms that run counter to the perceived efficacy of collective efforts to produce social change. Thus, mass incarceration damages both community structures and social norms that would produce effective resistance to systemic injustice.

The real costs ensuing from the unwarranted and racially differential growth of this country’s rates of incarceration constitutes a deep-seated and premeditated systemic injustice. This has fueled an epiphenomenal growth in U.S. crime control industries over the last four decades, and qualifies for the label “injustice” because it is not supported by objective data reflecting levels of crime.

Those supporting this growth have turned a blind eye – and infected the general public with a corresponding myopia – to the human, economic and social costs of this misdirected public policy, or its specious relationship to public safety. The racial nature of both the cause and consequences of this injustice has exempted this wrong from scrutiny and discussion by the general public, while at the same time disempowering those most negatively affected from the means of protest and redress.

There are two primary sources of crime-related data that form the basis of criminal justice public policy decisions. These are the Uniform Crime Report (UCR), maintained by the FBI and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), maintained by the Department of Justice. NCVS is considered a more accurate and complete picture of crime in the U.S., as it is based on interviews of household members. An analysis of these reports reveals:

  • NCVS shows no increases in property crimes [1973 to 1980].
  • NCVS show no increase in violent crimes between 1973 and in 1993.
  • UCR data showed a steady increase in violent crimes between 1973 and in 1993.

There is clearly contradictory evidence of a 1970s crime epidemic, which was a major rationale for expanding the use of imprisonment. Prison populations began increasing only after crime rates had already stabilized or, according to the crime victimization surveys, had already began to decline.

However, organized politics has the ability to trump data when public policy decisions are made. Having begun in the 1960s, “law and order” advocates escalated the “war on crime”: Conservative politicians (e.g., Barry Goldwater), religious groups (e.g., the Moral Majority), and a host of rightwing talk-radio personalities began to beat the “war” drums. However, the media was the most essential ingredient, popularizing the “crime problem” idea, and focusing uncompromisingly on crime – the more shocking and astounding, the better.

The relationship of the accelerated “war on crime” to the urban riots of the ‘60’s is not documented by research, but is quite plausible. There is research evidence indicating that cities experiencing riots continued to face white flight – at even higher levels – during this decade. Did this white flight translate into “white fright”, and fuel the “war on crime”? There is also research evidence indicating that cities experiencing riots increased expenditures significantly more in fiscal areas defined as targeting greater control and punishment of “rioters” than areas addressing the issues around which the civil disturbances were centered. This is an inquiry area warranting more substantial research.

The results of the “war on crime” were sentencing changes which:

  • Increased the probability of a prison sentence rather than jail or probation;
  • Dramatically increased the length of prison sentences for certain crimes;
  • Required prisoners to serve a greater proportion of their sentences; and,
  • Increased penalties for drug offenses, which strongly fueled much of the growth of state prison populations starting in the late 1980s.

Time and circumstance have caused a serious questioning of these sentencing changes. A study of crime and incarceration rates from 1980 to 1991 in all 50 states and D.C. shows that the states which increased incarceration rates the least were just as likely to experience decreases in crime as those that increased them the most. Other studies reach similar conclusions, finding “no consistent relationship between incarceration rates and crime rates” and “no support for the ‘more prisoners, less crime’ thesis.”

The net effect of the sentencing changes was a marked escalation in the incarceration rates for African Americans primarily and for Hispanics secondarily. What would be the situation if these differential rates did not prevail? According to the JFA Institute, in their 2002 publication entitled “Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce America’s Prison Population”, the following would maintain:


Current Prisoners

Incarceration Rates

Prison Population
If Same Rates as Whites






















A relevant question thusly becomes: “Why Mass Incarceration?” America occupies a singular position among world nations in terms of its polar extreme position on the issue of racial definition and signification as the basis for inter-group reaction and interaction. The mythical bio-moral chasm between black and white – based upon a bizarre admixture of religious misbelief and pseudo-science – that is comfortably embraced by the American white psyche is a stubbornly vicious historic legacy of the specious justification for the extremely cruel form of slavery upon which the American nation was based. This chasm, the anemic attempt to resolve the inherent contradiction between slavery and democratic principles has been indelibly etched into the political, economic, social, psychological and ideational presence of this nation.

Mass incarceration thus serves the function of “verifying” stereotypes about Black criminality that originated in slavery and are part of a belief system premised on the superiority of whites and inferiority of Blacks. A society less desensitized by irrational prejudice would readily have recognized that – even if, as it not the case, current prison policy was justified based upon effective deterrence – the negative consequences of this policy on communities suffering mass incarceration cry out for policy modification.

Consistent with historic American normative values, mass incarceration’s role in crime control is less essential than is its role in controlling the social, economic, and political engagement of African American communities in the national polity. Penal institutions have historically been key components of social policy aimed at governing secondary social groups. The retrenchment enforced upon this nation’s public welfare policies – through a carefully orchestrated process of legislation and public censure of welfare recipients – culminating in the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation, is etiologically related to the expansion of prisons, an expansion which cast an aura of collective shame on urban communities and further isolated them from the majority of the body politic.

History repeats, and repeats, and repeats…. The major “Peculiar institutions” that have served to define, confine, and control African Americans are:

  • Slavery (1619-1865)
  • Jim Crow system in the South (1865-1965)
  • Urban ghetto in the North (1915-1968), and
  • The “Matrix Compound” formed by the vestiges of the ghetto and the expanding incarceration system (1968-).

The term “Matrix” is deemed appropriately descriptive because it is something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form. The ”Matrix Compound” is rendered necessary by evolving changes in the structure of the American economy. The shift from a production-based and manufacturing economy to a highly specialized service- and information-based economy has led to production efficiencies, which yielded surplus labor, causing a weakened labor movement, resulting in increased income inequities.

In order to adequately comprehend the “Matrix Compound” concept, one must move beyond the physical definition and characteristics of the ghetto and recognize the function of the ghetto, its strategic position within the American economic, political and social system. A ghetto is a socio-spatial device with a socio-economic intent, politically maintained to assure the exploitation by a dominant group of a subordinate group, a group whose ostracizing is essential to facilitate the exploitation. The dominant group’s control of the process is predicated upon four essential ingredients:

  • An effective stigma applied to the subordinate group, which should clearly differentiate it from the dominant group;
  • An effective structure of restraint and limitations on the actualizations of the subordinate group;
  • Confinement of the subordinate group to a defined spatial presence; and
  • Encirclement of the subordinate group by an institutional matrix maintained by the dominant group


Juxtaposition of these elements to the characteristics of a penal environment is illuminating!

The “Matrix Compound” is a result of the fact that the ghetto – ipso facto – has outworn its usefulness as a mechanism for caste control, and needs to be augmented to become a currently effective instrument designed to maintain African Americans (particularly the “unskilled”) “in their place”, (i.e. in a inferior and constrained position in physical, social, and representational space). African Americans, who began their “careers” in this Nation as enforced labor, are regressively becoming the fodder, the raw material for an increasingly insatiable carceral machine.

The institutions that preceded the “Matrix Compound” were destabilized by the intrinsic inconsistency between hierarchal societal composition and the democratic values professed by this nation. Each collapsed under the weight of its evil intent and content. Each chose as its object of oppression a smaller and smaller portion of the subjugated group, while never disturbing the oppressor advantage. Mass incarceration focuses upon the most impoverished segments of urban communities.

Ghettoes and prisons are functional equivalents in that they both are intended to simultaneously apply a badge of dishonor, and hence the constraints of the body politic to African Americans, and are so inextricably interwoven as to form a single institutional matrix. There is vicious resonance between ghettoes and prisons that repositions the historic nexus between race and citizenship into a modern ideational environment that is housed within a public culture predicated upon the denigration and defamation of “criminals”.

Mass incarceration represents history “updated.” The resulting “Matrix Compound” is a most effective – though perverse – foundation for etching long-established obstacles to African American socio-economic and political progress into current community life, while transposing these historic racial obstacles to the succeeding generation. It is ironic that, while some within the African American community are advocating reparations to symbolically provide a modicum of compensation for the residual consequences of slavery, the “Matrix Compound” phenomenon constitutes a form of reverse reparations, through transfers of earnings, wealth, census enumeration, voting power and political representation, as well as government dollars from the former slaves to the former slave masters!


Over a period of time, African Americans have utilized the urban ghetto setting to design and implement esoteric social forms and symbolic interaction patterns, the intent of which is to upturn racial subjugation. The transference of the urban ghetto into “matrix compounds” through the consequences of mass incarceration is intended to dismember the social framework, which heretofore yielded a pattern of social solidarity and formed the basis of political achievement.

Where do we go from here?

Prisons have become enmeshed in the normal way of life in many inner-city communities, making it an integral part of its culture. This problem requires a two-pronged approach. First, affirmative action must reverse the racial consequences deeply and intentionally engrained within the criminal justice system. Second, there must be concerted attention to and massive infusion of financial, human and ideational resources – from both internal and external loci – into inner-city neighborhoods to build local institutions, redefine social norms, facilitate social networks, and engender social citizenship. In summary, both the cause of and the consequences of the existence of “Matrix Compounds” must be thoroughly eradicated.

An essential question which must be asked – and answered: How can Islamic norms and values be infused into and effectively enhance or modify the culture and subculture of areas that suffer social and cultural disorganization as a consequence of historic tendencies exacerbated by mass incarceration?

And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah's favour on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make His Signs clear to you: That ye may be guided.

Quran: 3:103
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