With this series we’ve shed some light on the multi-billion dollar business of incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline that feeds it through discriminatory punishment. When discussing the adverse effects of imprisonment, one aspect that is usually glanced over is the effect on families and how these contribute to cyclical disenfranchisement.
In an article touching on an ex-prisoner’s reentry to society, Cassel discusses the story of Elaine Bartlett, as told in the book, Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett. Her story is one of a first-time drug offender, who made a “drop” in order to get some quick cash to pay some bills and fund a family Thanksgiving party, and resulted with a sentence of 16 years in prison. Cassel urges us to think about the damage to a person’s agency that can come from years of not being able to make any decisions, such as when to eat or when to go to sleep.
Now imagine this narrative. You’re a mother of an infant and your husband has been convicted for selling drugs. His minimum wage job wasn’t enough. Your minimum wage part-time job also isn’t enough. It is part time because a full time job would require that you seek day care services, which you cannot afford with your minimum wage even if you were working more hours. Now that your husband is in jail you can’t afford to pay your bills and provide for your baby. Your parents’ pension isn’t enough for anyone either. You’re offered a single “drop” job. It should take care of the bills you currently have pending. You consider the risk involved, but with so many necessities you end up taking the offer. But as you soon come to know, the dealer you worked for was under surveillance and it results in your arrest. You won’t have a moment of privacy with your baby until he’s a teenager. The few and short visits, closely monitored by correction officers, are deeply painful to you and your child.
Now imagine going back to society, you’re not eligible for a wide list of jobs, federal educational aid (why you couldn’t study in prison), public housing, food stamps, and other welfare benefits.
This story could be edited to match hundreds of thousands of women’s realities. And because women’s rate of imprisonment is expanding the most rapidly, hundreds of thousands of children will grow up without their biological parents. Most mothers being incarcerated are single mothers.
Is imprisonment a solution? The lack of tolerance and compassion in the judicial system, schools, and in the writing of legislation regarding punishment, does not help us move towards a safer and more just society. It seems easy for government officials to only take lobbyists’ special interests and people’s apathy into consideration when implementing ineffective, divisive, and unimaginative methods of behavioral surveillance and correction. This problem reaches new depth when one considers the lack of second chances, and society’s inability to evaluate how greater social constructs, institutions, and hierarchies cyclically places certain populations in a pipeline that results in disenfranchisement. Who is at fault? Society suggests that it is the individual’s choices that lead them to this reality, and therefore, it is their problem. Meanwhile society is completely dismissing the root of the problem. This is a collective issue; it is shaped by the racial and class disparities that have been strategically acted upon since the end of segregation, and that is inherent in our social institutions.
By: Felix Acuña