Decarceration: Resuscitating our Squandered Resources

Every year, 11% of Baltimore’s population goes through central booking. One in four African American children have a father in prison at some point during their youth compared with one in thirty Caucasian kids. The yearly drug consumption costs in Baltimore total approximately $16 billion, making our city a hotbed for drug raids and high rates of incarceration.

These are all facts that I learned during the Social Determinants of Health Symposium on Squandered Resources: Incarceration – Its Consequences, Costs and Alternatives, which was convened by the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute on April 28th. Speakers examined the reality of incarceration in America and provided promising solutions for prevention, community re-entry and lessening recidivism.

Português: Uma cela moderna em Brecksville Pol...

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Throughout the symposium, speakers framed the prison industrial complex as a big business that has expanded in the past forty years to house a multitude of individuals – many of whom have not committed serious offenses and/or have mental health issues. The prison population in America is disproportionately poor and African American, perpetuating the shameful history of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement in the U.S.

Experts explained that as more jails are built, more people are isolated behind their walls, waiting only for a day when they are sent back to their neighborhoods with the expectation to obtain gainful employment (which is difficult – if not impossible – due to job application forms that require applicants to disclose whether they have committed a felony). Oftentimes, these individuals end up back in jail due to lack of opportunity and support services.

Clearly, the social and economic factors that lead individuals on a path toward prison must be addressed in order to build individual and community wellness.

One of the solutions outlined during the symposium is preventing incarceration in the first place. This can be done through (1) interventions with community members and (2) altering correctional practices.

It was suggested that nonprofits and service providers follow the police and identify the same neighborhoods and people that are being targeted for arrests … then, work within those systems to build stronger safety nets, effectively tailor strategies, and set up alternative programs for income generation that may include education and job training.

At the same time, police can alter their practices by interacting with community members and seeking to divert criminal behaviors rather than laying wait to throw people in jail. Although the “stop and frisk” policy in New York City is invasive and creates barriers between the police and community members, the other diversionary practices that police have adopted in New York are promising and have led to only 400 arrests within a city of 8 million over the past year. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are another promising strategy to address criminal offenses without throwing every offender in jail. Speakers defined this reversal of incarceration as “decarceration.”

Another tactic that was addressed during the symposium was easing community re-entry and ensuring that formerly incarcerated individuals don’t re-offend. A main point of discussion here is the need for job training and placement to ensure that these transitioning community members are able to effectively contribute to society, while providing them with mental health and addiction treatment services as necessary.

“Ban the box” bills, such as the one that Baltimore City Council passed on April 28th, are a step in the right direction – ensuring that employers are not allowed to ask applicants about their criminal past until they have made them a conditional offer. This ensures that formerly incarcerated citizens are given a fighting chance to succeed in the job market.

By applying these promising practices, we may be able to reserve prison for the small percentage of people who really do need to be behind bars, and help formerly incarcerated individuals transition back into their communities as productive and successful members of society.

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I have extensive experience coordinating communications and outreach initiatives focused on health and social issues. In my current position as Project Specialist, I provide communications technical assistance to regional and federal efforts within the National Partnership for Action initiative, with support from the Office of Minority Health. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked on health and social affairs projects in the Federated States of Micronesia. Read more.