I read with interest of singer John Legend’s “Free America” campaign, which aims to bring awareness to the problem of mass incarceration in the United States.
“It’s destroying families, it’s destroying communities and we’re the most incarcerated country in the world,” Legend told the Associated Press. “And when you look deeper and look at the reasons we got to this place, we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration.”
The campaign will include concerts in prisons, as well as meetings with political figures such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). It will include yet-to-be-named recording artists who will join Legend raising our awareness. It will include, quite frankly, nothing that will change the condition of those who currently comprise the 2.2 million Americans who’ve made the United States the most incarcerated nation on the planet.
That’s because our criminal justice system is not a monolith that can be tackled in one fell swoop. It is a jigsaw puzzle whose disjointed parts have never fit neatly together.
There are federal and state prison systems. But like politics, mass incarceration is local, and we need look no further than Philadelphia’s own municipal prison system to see its lasting effects.
As of late February, there were over 15,000 people in Philadelphia’s municipal prisons. Each of them represents lost tax revenue through wages, lost community cohesion through absence, and lost potential through what will likely happen to them upon their exit from the system.
You see, as much as we’d like to make people disappear after they’ve been incarcerated, the reality is that they are returning to our communities. And when they do, they are in need of jobs, in need of social supports, in need of help.
But decades of tough-on-crime rhetoric have left us too afraid to face the reality that those who commit crimes and serve their time do return. It has left us with a mindset so consumed with punishment that we are oblivious to the end result.
The horror of mass incarceration isn’t what happens to those who enter prison. No, the horror of mass incarceration is what happens to those who exit. Because here’s the reality: Those who’ve been imprisoned return to us clothed in the hope that they’ll secure gainful employment, and that the promise of a second chance won’t elude them.
The reality is much different than the promise. Too often, second chances are hopelessly elusive, even for those who reach for them most earnestly. Combine the temporary prison term with the scarlet letter that comes with a criminal conviction, and you have people who are too often sentenced to life.
That life sentence means being saddled with unemployment and poverty. It means being saddled with hopelessness. More often than not, it means an imminent return to prison.
The numbers bear out that truth.
In a study released a year ago, the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than two thirds of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters were arrested within five years.
So while I am heartened to see that John Legend has committed to working with fellow artists and legislators to address America’s problem with mass incarceration, we need more than that.
We need to help those who leave prison to earn gainful employment. We need to equip them to pay taxes, and to pay their own way. Otherwise, if the national pattern holds true, nearly 12,000 people who return from our municipal prisons will return to prison within the next five years.
And all of us will have to pay for that.
Listen to Solomon Jones weekdays 7 to 10 am on 900 am WURD.