What You Need To Know About The Mass Incarceration Of The Black Community

We discuss the parallels between slavery and the mass incarceration of the Black community, along with how our nation can move forward.
black man in prison wearing prison uniform

As a keynote speaker and podcast host, I consider myself a bit of a talker. In other words, there are very few instances where I’m at a loss for words!

That is, however, until my powerful discussion with Dr. Zaria Davis about the trauma of mass incarceration. I was so deeply moved, so impacted by her story, that I found myself experiencing an almost out-of-body experience as I took in her words. 

Before we dive into my conversation with her, I want to provide some context. I could say a lot about the criminal legal system, but I’ll let the statistics speak for themselves.

The United States incarcerates the most people each year of any country in the world.

While their rate of imprisonment has decreased the most in recent years, Black Americans remain far more likely than their Hispanic and white counterparts to be in prison. In fact, Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at around five times the rate of white Americans. The numbers in Canada are also staggering.

According to the NAACP, approximately 10-20% of inmates suffer from a serious mental illness, often made worse during incarceration. 

For Black men in America, there exists a link between incarceration and higher levels of psychological distress, more severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and other facets of poor mental health. (More on women coming up.)

So, how did we get here?

The enslavement experience: past and present

 

A mentor, educator and advocate as a senior consultant with New Direction Coaching & Consulting, Dr. Zaria Davis focuses on healing through spiritual care, and on leadership development and advocacy within the criminal legal system. She’s especially passionate about addressing the challenges of mass incarceration and the need for restorative justice for individuals, organizations, coalitions and communities.

She also holds perspective as a formerly incarcerated Black woman.

 

“When we think about the criminal legal system, we’ve been brought up to believe that people have done these bad things and they deserve to be punishedand this is how we punish people,” she said during our discussion.

But looking at the disparities between the U.S. and global incarceration rates and trends, we can see that is not the case. 

“There are clearly other ways to handle situations in the community when harm is done,” she said. “Unfortunately, we have a system that has been set up from the beginning as being punitive.”

It is reminiscent of a major chapter in U.S. history: enslavement. 

The legacy of slavery

 

This mass incarceration of the Black community is a continuation of what we have witnessed over time, or perhaps, the “latest in a series of institutions created to enforce the racial hierarchy” as one explanation suggests.

Slavery used to enforce that hierarchy until it was abolished. Then, Jim Crow was put in place to enforce the racial order until it, too, was no longer legal—only for mass incarceration to take its place in maintaining the hierarchy and ensuring ethnoracial control. 

(As an aside, I encourage you to read this history on race and prison and how the growth in the prison population is a deliberate policy.)

Mass incarceration is, put simply, a modern-day version of slavery that keeps white people in economic and political power, while stripping Black people of their humanity and perpetuating the trauma cycle.

 

Abolishing slaverywhether incarceration or other formsalso abolishes the control of people, keeping them in the mindset of producing for free, whether on a plantation in the past or in the criminal legal system in the present. What incentive is there to decarcerate if the system is generating profit and free (or close-to-free) labour?

“Through mass incarceration, you are able to have what they call slave labour through our prisons and even through our system as a whole,” Davis said. “You have people that are working for little to nothing inside.”

This journal article draws on multiple lines of research, one of which shows how a legacy of slavery can shape contemporary attitudes, whereby the attitudes of previous generations lead to intergenerational impacts that potentially include punitive behaviours and practices to control economically marginalized individuals. 

Guilty until proven innocent

One of the challenges of our system is a presumption of guilt. “How do you prove your innocence when someone is saying, starting out, that you’re guilty?” Dr. Zaria asked. 

She’s heard people refer to this ‘tough-on-crime’ approach in a positive manner, where the number of people locked up is directly correlated with what’s deemed success. 

“And yet [we’re] criminalizing people in poverty. We’re criminalizing people who are unhoused. Instead of providing supports and resources in communities, we’re penalizing people for the situations they’re in. And they end up [cycling through] the system.”

 

It was refreshing to listen to Dr. Zaria’s story, as she documented how she was federally charged with conspiracy to commit fraud (considered a white-collar crime). She was sentenced right after receiving her doctorate degree. She was actively employed and a single parent.

“It’s so interesting because my child, at the time, knew somebody who had gotten charged with raping three or four kids, and we ended up having the same sentence,” she recalled.

In many countries, prison acts as a temporary space. “In our country [the U.S.], we literally strip people of their humanity, and we never get it back. I tell people all the time, ‘I am not fully free. I’m still enslaved to the system because I don’t have all my rights as a citizen even now,’” she told me.

By that, she’s referring to the limitations imposed on her because of her past incarcerationand the dehumanization that occurs as a result. For example, in some states, it can be difficult to find a job or secure housing, education and certain federal benefits once they return to the community.

“When you are incarcerated, literally all of your rights as a U.S. citizen are stripped, and you are considered property,” she said. “When you come home, depending on the state you go to, some of those rights are returned and some are not. But for those of us in the federal system, we cannot be freed unless the President of the United States gives us a pardon.”

 

I recommend you seek out books like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, where Michelle Alexander argues we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. In Chokehold: Policing Black Men, which was nominated for the 49th NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work (Nonfiction), Paul Butler shows how the system is working exactly the way it’s supposed to: against Black folks.

Motivated by her healing and restorative journey, Dr. Zaria continues to fight for the liberation of our people. “Until we find a way that people can actually be liberated and free, [with] their rights and privileges restored, we’ll never have the society we aspire to.”

In a world where none of us are free until all of us are free, her journey is inspiring, to say the least.

Women in the prison system

 

Real talk: The imprisonment rate for African American women is 1.6 times that of white women. Even indirect contact with the system, like seeing a loved one incarcerated, can cause significant distress.

The prison experience can worsen the trauma that’s entrenched in women’s stories, whether from childhood, relationships or community, not to mention intergenerational trauma. These stressors can ultimately undermine their health and the health of their children. (Over half of imprisoned women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.)

Many women are criminalized because of their victimization. When Davis was in prison, she started polling women to find out what brought them thereand the majority cited charges like conspiracy. “[It meant] they have some knowledge about something…there are so many women who have been victimized who have had to protect themselves and their children.”

 

Many correctional facilities lack even basic menstrual hygiene products or gynecological and obstetric care, not to mention mental health supports to address the trauma that landed them there. That, in turn, creates even more layers of trauma and stress.

The impacts of mass incarceration extend far beyond the individual. Children with incarcerated parents are more likely to experience developmental, emotional and behavioural problems; are six times more likely to be involved in criminal activity; and may see reduced lifetime earnings.

Looking ahead to the future

In all of my blog posts, I talk about healing, and there is a good reason for that. I am the chair of the National Healing Journey and recently had to take stock of what the word ‘healing’ even refers to.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines healing as the process of making [one] free from injury or disease. I like the next part of the definition: to make whole again. 

Healing goes well beyond people, places, things, animals or even nature. Healing extends to the ecosystem. This article by The Guardian suggests that just 3% of the world’s ecosystem remains intact and requires a massive intervention to restore and heal the planet. 

A healthy Black ecosystem refers to a community and environment that fosters and supports the well-being, growth and sustainability of Black individuals, families and businesses. To create such an ecosystem, several elements need to come together:

  1. Economic stability: A strong local economy with Black-owned businesses, solid job opportunities and fair wages is crucial for socioeconomic equality and well-being.
  2. Representation: Representation in leadership roles, politics, educational institutions and other sectors of society is essential to ensure the interests and perspectives of Black people are adequately considered.
  3. Education: Access to quality education is vital for personal growth, self-reliance and community development. This also includes raising awareness and promoting Black history, culture and contributions in curricula.
  4. Cultural identity: Encouraging and celebrating Black art, music, literature and other forms of cultural expression helps to preserve and promote shared cultural values while also fostering a sense of belonging.
  5. Health and wellness: Access to affordable and comprehensive health-care services is paramount, as well as mental health support and initiatives targeting specific health disparities in the Black community.
  6. Safe community: A thriving community requires a safe environment, which includes addressing issues such as racism, discrimination and police brutality. It also involves building positive relationships within the community and with law enforcement.
  7. Environmental justice: Ensuring Black communities have clean air, water and are free from environmental hazards is essential for overall population health.
  8. Networking and support: A strong network of organizations, programs and services that foster collaboration and provide resources and mentorship opportunities are vital in supporting Black individuals and businesses.

Like the program led by the Afro-Caribbean Business Network, most of our ecosystem programs focus on business development. I think it’s time to expand the focus and add restorative justice to the list above. When these elements are in place, they help to create a supportive, flourishing and healthy Black ecosystem.

Educating and sharing our narrative

There is only so much we can do without white folks recognizing what has happened historically in North America as it relates to race. The mass trauma we’ve experienced must be acknowledged, one interaction at a time.

It’s clear that many people don’t know or understand anything about the system and how it’s used against us. Honest, earnest conversations with those who have enslaved us, literally and figuratively, are key. We also need to have real conversations with our children and how they will be targeted. 

“We have to continue to share our stories, our narrative, to mobilize people to action and to be involved in the election process and voting. Because I think a lot of times, we get discouraged and then we end up with people who are working against our best interests.”

On a positive note, in recent years, people of all races seem to be more open to listening and understanding that things aren’t quite right with the system. We can use tools like social media to move people to change by giving folks a platform to share their experiences, in an easy-to-digest way that resonates with people who may not know where to begin their learning.

The energy required to learnand unlearn—during these conversations can be exhausting. We are inundated with videos of Black men getting murdered, of shootings taking place in schools and malls, of other horrible racist incidents, over and over again. It is overwhelming not only for our brains, but also for our hearts and spirits, and creates its own form of trauma that we must process.

Enabling mobilization on a larger scale

While Dr Zaria doesn’t think we will see the demolition of the system in our lifetime, she is optimistic that by engaging strong leaders and educating and mentoring the next generations to step up and take action, we will start to see a more restorative process in our country that’s owned by melanated and non-melanated folks alike.

“We have to be empowered to have voices and to speak in these spaces to create change [and empower others],” she said. “We shouldn’t have to keep trying to fight this by ourselves. I think there has to be accountability for our white counterparts.”

Let’s address the (Black) elephant in the room: What would truly hit the system hard is the removal of the free labour and pools of money that drive it. 

“If this is something that’s really important to us, if this is something that we really want to see changed, then we’re going to have to address the economic aspect of it,” said Davis. 

Groups like Worth Rises are already doing great work in this area. We must put our support behind them and then build that out to a national movement to transform the current system to one where people’s voices are heard. 

Implementing restorative justice

Restorative justice and practices are not new concepts. These community-based forms of conflict resolution date back centuries to Africa as well as First Nations people on Turtle Island. As one example cited in this article on restorative practices, the Nguni people spend days in a circle speaking life into a person who has done harm until they are whole again, and do so without shame.

Restorative justice offers a safe space for people to heal and repair harm not only for the individuals who are directly involved, but also for a collective group of people “to repair the cultural and historical harms of the past.”

In the groundbreaking The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice, social activist Fania E. Davis explores how it has the capacity to disrupt patterns of mass incarceration through effective, equitable and transformative approaches.

 

“I wish that in this country, we could actually implement more of those types of practices when harm is done, instead of just locking up somebody and throwing away the key,” said Dr. Zaria. “Even once they’re released from prison, they’re still imprisoned.”

Understanding Black history and its legacies, positive and negative, is how we can start to heal the traumas of the past; create a path for our people to be free; mobilize Black folks across the diaspora; and move toward a better, more equitable future. 

Check out my blog post on community healing and the National Healing Journey, and be sure to listen to Dr. Zaria’s powerful words on the full episode of my podcast, Hey, I’m Listening!

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Dr. Joan

Dr. Joan Samuels-Dennis, Ph.D., is an award-winning speaker and authority on trauma recovery. She is a pioneer of a powerful Truth, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation process that brings healing to individuals, families, communities, and nations. For over a decade she worked to perfect the groundbreaking trauma recovery technique called The Forgiveness Method.

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