How and Why Black Male Incarceration Is Undermining Martin L
Political scientist Keith Reeves '88 says the magnitude of the black prison population is a crisis that has profound consequences for the social fabric of urban families and neighborhoods.
Keith Reeves: Why don't you come down to the prison for a VIP tour, and so that's how I found myself in this space. What I want to share with you is a bit of what my initial reaction was and how it is that there this is this linkage between so many of the guys that I work with inside this facility and what I'm calling and arguing is Martin Luther King Jr.'s last wish.
In truth, I had an abject ambivalence at the idea of going to prison, but there I was on a bitterly cold, bright, blue morning of February 3rd 2003, taking a nearly three-hour tour of the state correctional facility in Chester. As some of you will know, Chester is just three-mile trek from the college. So the facility, very neat and unpretentious and there's a picture of it on the slide. Interestingly, which was for me, quite a shock, stands just a few walking blocks from my childhood neighborhood.
Since its opening in April of 1998, family and friends and former neighbors were never reticent in sharing their heavy stream of opinions of SEI Chester, the acronym by which the prison is known. Years after its construction, they vacillate between feelings of resignation and a quiet indignation that a prison, a prison, is now present in their backyard.
In all candor, curiosity caused me to make the trip to SEI Chester that particular day. Its modest exterior on a major thoroughfare belies the scope and the ambition of the work that is done there. It is quite remarkably, Pennsylvania's first facility to treat upwards of 1,200 males inmates with drug and alcohol and substance abuse addictions and it proudly boasts somewhere up on the order of about 50 or so self-help programs that prepare roughly 97% of these men for the eventual return home. So 97% of these individuals who are incarcerated, in this facility, but also across the state, eventually will make their way back home.
Over the years I have struggled pretty mightily with the right language to adequately capture how society should think of this men and women who are incarcerated at SEI Chester and in jails and prisons all across the country. What noun captures that they have done their time and paid their debt to society? Is it ex-felons? What about ex-offenders? Ex-convicts? What about former inmates and how do our labels help us in actualizing what Martin Luther King's concern about and for our neighbor?
But nothing could prepare me for the gut-punch of what happened next. A sheer coincidence of timing brought about an improbable encounter with one of SEI Chester's inmates. Up until then the tour was rolling along rather smoothly. "Don't I know you? Aren't you from Chester?" came two questions in rapid succession. Frantically searching my memory to make out the older gentleman's face, I reflectively answered, "Yeah, I grew up in Chester on Second and Parker Streets." "I'm Jessie Fost," the gentleman's real name. "Do you remember me? You have a twin brother, don't you?" and as he warmly spoke came only a faint recognition that standing in front of me, near the prison library, was in fact a former neighbor.
Jessie had grown up on the neighborhood of Second and Edward Streets on Chester's west end. My twin brother and I would venture through his neighborhood as we left our Friday evening scout meetings. The shock on my face, I'm certain, was evident. "What are you doing here?" I asked, more curious than judgemental. "I'm a lifer," he said matter-of-factly. What's interesting is Jessie has four children, two daughters, two sons, one daughter is a nurse who's doing quite well. He has a second daughter who is in and out of jail because of a serious drug addiction and he has two sons who are also in prison, not in the same facility, but they're in prison as well.
Part of what is stunning and of great concern to those of us who work in this space, is we're starting to see multiple generations of individuals who are ending up in prison. Suffice it to say that this jolting news provided a blunt coda to an already emotionally fraught encounter. I resolved to Jessie that I would in fact return to see him, he nodded approvingly and for nearly seven years, usually once a week, I have.
Try if you can to picture the scene of weekly visits at SEI Chester. So between the hours of 2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., five days a week, visitors are genuinely welcome. One must arrive by 7:00 p.m. and no one is allowed in after 7:30. These very generous hours draw a steady stream of visitors, mostly young and middle-age African American women, some with teenage sons and daughters, others with very small children.
The stage visit retro over nearly, probably 200 times now, over the years feels fairly mundane. I take a number ticket and provide the correctional officer manning the entrance desk with Jessie's inmate number, my driver's license is inspected to ensure that the identification matches the name on his approved visiting list. The desk officer hits a few keystrokes on the computer and then calls to her counterpart who in turn tracks down Jessie to inform him that he has a visitor. I then choose a locker to store my personal belongings and greet the familiar assemblage of weekly regulars. In addition, I make certain use the money changer to get tokens for drinks and food purchases once inside the waiting area.
When Jessie's inmate number is called, I dutifully sign the visitor's log, record my arrival time, my name, address, usually 500 College Avenue, purpose of visit or inmate number, make of car, and driver's license, after which I wait for the desk officer to call Fost, which is Jessie's last name. The melancholy in the waiting area is always palpable. Over the years one is privy to hundreds, hundreds of conversations, some fairly commonplace, others emotionally gut-wrenching.
For instance, the following exchange could be overheard between two African American women, seemingly in their mid-20s. Woman one: "This your first time here?" Woman two: "Yeah," Woman two: "I'm not into the prison thing." Woman one: "If you're here today, then you're doing it." Woman two: "I guess, I guess." The brief upfront conversation offered an interesting window into the prison thing and how the prison thing is responsible for an ever-widening gulf between hundreds of thousands of imprisoned black men and their families, friends, and neighbors who are forced to do time outside.
Riveted by such exchanges and over an increasingly noisy waiting room, most times I do not hear the CO bellow very familiar names by now. "Gonzalez. Visitor Gonzalez. Taylor. Thompson. Visitor Greene. Wallace. Fost. Visitor Fost." With my personal belongings that have not been placed in the numbered locker, which usually include my watch, a locker key and a Glade plastic sandwich bag full of tokens, I step up to clear the metal detector. After collecting these items along with my shoes, I am searched with an ion scanner, my right hand stamped with either an abbreviated Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday in yellow ink. Only then am I handed a white visitor's pass by the issuing correctional officer and you see a copy of it to my left.
Nearly three-quarters down the page, the follow terse advisory never fails to command my attention. Notice to non-employee. Visitors to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Please be advised that as part of its continuing effort to prevent the introduction of drugs into its prisons, the PADOC is utilizing electronic control substance sensing devices at our agency's facilities. These devices detect the presence of drug traces on persons, property, and clothing. I've learned over the years not to hand over my paper money anytime before I go down to visit Jessie, in part because typically there's a false reading. [inaudible 00:10:37] so far I think.
The notice continues: All visitors on institution property are subject to random screening. If you are scanned and receive a positive reading at a predetermined level, you will be given the opportunity to remove outer garments believed to be contaminated and a second scan will be performed. If after removing your outer garments you still test positive, entrance to the facility will be denied. I trust that you will support the agency's commitment to making all departments' facilities drug-free. This will ensure a safe environment for all inmates and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Signed, Secretary, PA Department of Corrections.
A possible drug search is a necessary prelude before one can gain access to the visiting area and when I am randomly pulled aside, which happens occasionally, my body involuntarily stiffens, my stomach tightens, palpable signs that no matter how long, how often I've been doing this, the random screening is always, always an exercise in high anxiety, and yet the Department of Corrections zero tolerance policy against controlled substances in its facilities is perhaps the primary reason that contraband, weapons and drugs of any sort rarely get in to SEI Chester. Rarely. I have something to say about private facilities but at this particular facility, very rarely does contraband get in.
So despite thousands of inmates and visitors and hundreds of employees coming in and out of its doors each year, and these employees include guards, they include supervisors, counselors, and contractors, to medical and mental health personnel, remarkably just two instances of contraband in nearly 13 years of operation. So they're doing something right.
I stand behind a bright, yellow line, patiently waiting for two sets of heavy, green metal doors to slide open and with a distinct and seemingly on-cue playing, they do. I walk into a 35 by 35 feet cinder block room and sitting approximately 10 feet from the entrance is the visiting room correctional officer.
In approaching the COs desk with my white visitor's pass in tow, just off the restrooms to my left, I pass a brightly colored space of cartoon characters instantly familiar to any parent with young children. Finding Nemo, SpongeBob, Tweety bird, Tommy of Rugrats fame, Spider-Man, Trek, and as my daughter used to love, Dora the Explorer, all meticulously painted by an inmate with undeniable artistic talent. But as terrific and welcoming as this play area is, the hard truth is that the small children who laugh and cry and spend time here with their fathers are the most innocent collateral consequences of their father's incarceration.
A 2000 study by the US Department of Justice, for example, documented that half of the nation's inmates are parents of children under 18. So on any given day, more than 1.5 million minor children had a parent in prison. 1.5 million minor children had a parent in prison, on any given day. So to be sure the problem is particularly acute for African American children where the family experience of imprisonment is now almost commonplace with one in every 14 kids growing up with a parent in prison.
I spend a lot of time in schools, in Chester and Philadelphia and occasionally in Memphis and in Daytona Beach, Florida and I've had the habit over the last several years of asking kids, "Do you have a parent, a loved on, a neighbor, do you know someone in prison?" Typically, in a classroom of 32 kids, you could easily find 28 to 29 kids who will raise their hand when I ask that question, so 80% of males and 86% of females in the Philadelphia prison system, which is very separate than the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections system.
For instance on parent, some 50% reported that one or more children were living with them at the time of their arrest and worse yet, approximately 14% of these inmates had children who are in protective services. So when Jessie enters the visiting area each week, he never fails to greet me with calm brown eyes, a broad smile, and a great bear hug, "Hey Professor, how are you?" I noticed that his hair and slightly grizzled beard are graying, his walk a tad bit slow, all tangible and sobering reminders that he is part of the commonwealth's fast growing population of aging inmates who are very expensive to take care of.
Some 2,520 at last count and this is up from about 1,892 in 2001. As Jessie puts it, tells me all the time, "When I first came to the pen, they called me Young Buck, now they call me Old Head." We canvassed the rather large visiting area for seats but ones that face windows looking outside. At one point during out initial visits, I politely inquired about his insistence on such a seating arrangement. "I like looking out the windows, Doc," he mused. "When I was up in Dallas, which is a state correctional facility about four or five hours from this area, I liked the spring but loved the winter more," he would say and while staring wistfully outside, Jessie elaborated, "Because with the leaves off the trees, you can see more."
We take our seats and eventually the thick air of microwave pizza, buffalo wings, popcorn, hotdogs, and fish sandwiches stirs us to make our way over to the vending machines, and as we eat and sip at bottles of fruit juice, Jessie and I talk brotherly and frankly and I ask, "How are you feeling?" and above the clamor of the waiting room, his response is always the same, always positive, "I feel good, Doc. I pray five times a day, fast, workout, I play ball with the guys in here," and for me it's always remarkable 'cause when I first met Jessie in 2003, he had already done 27 years when I first met him.
His mood more often than not, then takes a turn inward. Jessie is particularly circumspect at times, taking inventory as it were. "I don't want to die in the pen. I'm getting old and you realize your mortality." More than 40 years ago, the late Michael Harrington, to socialist intellectual often credited with helping spark President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty, made a discerning comment about the entanglement of incarceration and poverty. In "The Other America" a book that a great number of you, I'm sure, remember, published in 1962, Harrington wrote this: "The city jail is one of the basic institutions of the other America. Almost everyone who I encountered in the tank was poor. Skid Row whites, Negros, Puerto Ricans, their poverty," Harrington went on to argue, "was an enticement to arrest in the first place."
Certainly Harrington's breathtaking observation proved to be [preciate 00:19:04]. There is indeed an guardian knot-tying race in class, prison, and disparate in poverty poor people in particular are constantly caught in the tentacles of the criminal justice system do not simply to impoverish neighborhood conditions and circumstances, but also often times, as I've learned over the eight years of doing this work, careless self-inflicted wounds. Poor inner city communities with high concentrations of black men who are incarcerated and then eventually we turn home, arguably make up the other America, to borrow Harrington's famous invaluable phrase a few decades ago.
No doubt the US incarceration rate has grown to orders of magnitude unimaginable at the time that Harrington penned his persuasive study. At the moment, 2.1 million, 2.1 million and counting individuals who are in prison. Those of you who know Chester very well will know that it is a community that has about 36,854 residents and we estimate that there are about 1200 men from Chester who are presently serving time in the State Correctional Facility. Pennsylvania has about 26 correctional facilities across the state. This does not include the juvenile facility, this also does not include the county prison which is along Route One.
My policy friends say to me, "Reeves, this is terrific. You have estimated the number of men who give a Chester address who are in prison, but you're not finished yet," and that's an estimate because the city won't give us real figures. "It's an estimate. You're not finished because you've not accounted for the folks who are on parole and probation. So take your 1,200 people and multiply that by a factor of 7 and that will give you the total population that is under the supervision of the criminal justice system." This also does not include juveniles and I'm account just for the males, this does not also include the females.
So 2.1 million across the country who are presently in prison. "We have embarked on a great social experiment," says Marc Mauer, the Director of the Sentencing Project and the author of a terrific called "The Race to Incarcerate." "No other society in human history has ever imprisoned so many of its own citizens for the purpose of [inaudible 00:21:44] control," he argues. And while Harrington understood that African American poverty grew out of a long and painful chapter in American history that was built on the interlocking base of economic and racial injustice, he certainly could not have projected that black men would account for nearly half of this staggering sum, despite constituting only 6% of nation's population.
If this blunt assessment about the cause and effect of persistent poverty was not convincing in 1962, it certainly is today. And point of fact, experts say that being poor or black is more strongly predictive of having a criminal record than in the past. On top of this, at the time that Harrington was writing, no one could have concerted the enormous cost of imprisoning so many, 31 billon dollars a year, and this is up from 5 billion that the country was spending in 1978. This is money that could be going to elderly, services, Social Security, fixing roads and bridges, education. Thirty-one billion dollars a year we spend and if you add the cost of jail and probation and parole expenditures, the nation spends a staggering 50 billion, with a B, 50 billion dollars annually on corrections, and the cost which has been attributable to black males is a reported price tag of 2.5 billion dollars and these are fundamental disturbing and frustrating facts.
Equally troubling though, black males number 18 million in the general population, some 840,000 of them are incarcerated and the Justice Department predicts and the projections show that the chances of a black boy serving time has nearly tripled in three decades. Black males comprise approximately 50% of the adult male prison population and are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than any other group in the population. It seems increasingly unlikely that black America and indeed the nation, can skirt some previously inconceivable questions a generation or two ago.
So what happens when imprisonment makes untold members of black men uninterested, unattractive or unavailable for viable marriages and family life? As Bill Cosby and Harvard's psychologist, Alvin Poussaint underscore, "A household without a father is a challenge. A neighborhood without fathers is a catastrophe," and that's just about what we have today. If you walk into most urban communities, Chester, Philly, Detroit, Oakland, Daytona Beach, Memphis, you will scores of neighborhoods in which there is a male figure, a father, an uncle, a son, who is not in the household, in part because that individual is doing some time in a local jail or prison.
So what then also are the consequences for patterns of black family formation and interaction? What about the academic, emotional, social, and material wellbeing of black children growing up in a neighborhood context, where long stretches in prison is the norm? How high a toll does residing in such an environment exact on young children and adolescents in particular? Moreover, can the occupational gap with white Americans be closed if a prison sentence or parole appointment, or the failure of a urine test interrupts both the employment and earning history of black men and what does one make of the often irreparable chaos that incarceration and the eventual return home inflicts on the civic and social fabric of a neighborhood, say, on volunteering, on mentoring, voting, church going and/or jury duty?
One of the things that's most disturbing to me, those of you who know Chester very well or have come down 291 will know that Harrah's Casino & Racetrack is directly next to prison in Chester, and those of you who know this area very well will know that that site where Harrah's sits used to be site of Sun Ship, 64 acres sprawling complex. The individuals whom I worked with over the years believe that they might be able to get a job at Harrah's, and the reality is that they can't. Even if you have a felony conviction, you now are typically unable to work in and around children, so you've got lots of kids in the neighborhood in Chester, Philly, neighborhoods all across the country in which there is space for men to volunteer, to coach Little League, to serve as Scout leaders and all and they are barred in part because of that felony conviction.
Also we know, and this is also equally disturbing is where do we get our list of folks to serve on jury's? They come from eligible list of voters and if you are convicted of a felony, having done time in prison, there are tons of states, tons of communities in which you are not eligible to vote for some period of time and in some southern states, in particular, you lose your voting privileges for the rest of your life. So imagine a young kid whose 20, 21, is in prison for seven years or so because of some drug possession, drug conviction, and if he lives in the wrong state, if it were, he loses his voting privileges for the rest of his life, assuming a life expectancy of 56, 58 years old or 70. Enormously, enormously tragic for communities across the country.
So how does this whole subculture of going to prison affect individual and collective norms in a neighborhood? It's prevailing values and aspirations and importantly the decision making and choices on the part of black men and other residents who are living there. These questions raise an even larger, once unthinkable set of questions and they include, how have we come to such a place? Are we not the same citizens who struggled and marched and went to jail to rid the country of legalized racism? This is a question that the poet, Maya Angelou, has asked recently.
Then I think of the recent passing of the reverent Shuttlesworth who exhibited such courage and conviction in facing down both [conard 00:28:37] stalls and firehouses in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King called Shuttlesworth, "the most courageous civil rights fighter in the south," and Shuttlesworth guesstimates that he was arrested more than 30 times. He said, he told a group of school children a few years ago, "I went to jail 30 or 40 times, not for fighting or stealing or for drugs. I went to jail for a good thing, trying to make a difference, trying to make a difference in helping to better the country."
So in his jail cell, Jessie, my former neighbor thinks about Fred Shuttlesworth, he thinks about Dr. King, he thinks about the thousands of volunteers who headed to Mississippi to register black voters and who were promptly arrested and he readily acknowledges the jagged trajectory his life has taken. Erudite and plain spoken, Jessie is the first to own up to the fact that he alone is responsible for his present plight. "Where I grew up in the inner city in Chester, you didn't plan on seeing 50. Not living the lifestyle that we lived did you plan on seeing 50," he says, "it was a gap in the young mans' lives. Jail was a graveyard and the only reason why I'm alive is that I'm in jail. The choices we saw were you hung out, you went to jail, you sold drugs, you died."
He soberly continued, "One out of the 11 men who hung out on the corner with me, only three of us are left and we three are in jail. The rest are dead. If I had to do my life all over again," this is Jessie talking, "I would do it differently. The choices I made brought me here."
As Jessie does time inside and sets eyes on the barbed wire rings around the perimeter of the prison, he is confronted with perhaps the most terrible and the cruelest of ironies. SEI Chester, which you see in this slide on my left, is in the same [worden 00:30:49] avenue neighborhood where he and his running partners claimed as their territory and in the quietest of moments too, he pines for his old tight knit neighborhood and thinks about the historic Calvary Baptist Church, just a stones throw from his childhood home. It is this historic church where a young Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who was just 19 years old, preached and taught Sunday school while he was a student at nearby Crozer Theological Seminary. What's fascinating and disturbing is, as some of you will know, Chester is 4.8 square miles, the distance between the facility and Calvary Baptist Church is a mere 1.4 miles, you can walk it and Jessie thinks about much of this in his quietest of moments.
So talking about growing up in the backdrop of this history, Jessie marvels at the fact that Dr. King actually walked the streets of his Chester neighborhood. He is aware of that sadly he has never seen the historic marker that now graces the front entrance of this historic church and it reads simply, "Martin Luther King Jr. 1929, 1968. King lived three years in this community and ministered under the mentorship of J. Pius Barbour, who was a friend of King's father. They were more house classmates and Barbour was the longtime pastor of this wonderful church. He graduated from Crozer Theological Seminary in 1951, a leader of the 1963 March on Washington. King won a Nobel Peace Prize, 1964, and all this too Jessie wrestles with the dissonance that in his hometown, steeped in such rich cultural and social history, a medium security correctional facility is not part of the communal landscape.
As I move toward my conclusion, I want to state this and then I'm gonna open it up for hopefully some robust Q&A, for three years King lived in the Chester community and I have little doubt that he would be deeply troubled by the fact that so many of our young black men are trapped in a trajectory that leads to marginal lives, imprisonment, and premature death. Dr. King's last wish and most profound challenge to us according to the wonderful historian Taylor Branch, was that we act toward all humanity in the spirit of equal souls and equal votes that we find a Lazarus somewhere from our teaming prisons to the bleeding earth.
In other words, create the beloved community, which as many of you well know, was something that King spent an enormous amount of time over the course of his 13-year public career advocating toward, working toward, creating the beloved community.
I argue that there are Lazaruses in the form of our young black males who are in jail and prison and by connecting with them, by getting past our separateness with respect to them and their plight, only then can we begin the difficult but necessary task of helping them fashion a much brighter future for themselves, their families, and their children, and indeed, the nation.
As Taylor Branch reminds us and argues that quest in common, the seeing humanity in each other becomes the spark of social movements and is therefore the engine of hope. So with that, let's open it up to some very robust Q&A. Thank you.
Yes. Also people, state your name and if you're a Swarthmore alum, identify if you're a mom or parent and friend and then let me know where you're from please.
Audience Member: [inaudible 00:34:45]
Keith Reeves: The question is things are pretty bad. What do you do? What are the solutions perhaps? One of the reasons why I stay at Swarthmore is my students and I over the years, particularly the ones in my Honors Seminar. I do an Honors Seminar on the urban underclass and public policy and we get into Chester, we get into the prisons.
I'll say something about a new course that I'm gonna do in the spring that actually will be inside the facility. I'll take 15 Swarthmore students who are political science majors, public policy majors and I will choose 15 guys that I work with inside the facility and we will do a class entitled, "The Politics of Punishment" trying to get at why it is that the criminal justice system appears to be driven on politics, but also, social racial lives, and part of the course will be working through group projects.
There will be 30 students, seminar will be broken up into six groups of five or five groups of six and the task will be to design a set of policy solutions that actually can be given to Governor Corbett, the Republican Governor here in Pennsylvania or the Congressional black caucus or stakeholders who have a great deal to say, community folks who are advocating on behalf of the population. We're very excited about the course. I'm a little nervous, understandably on some dimensions, but we've been working on this for about two-and-a-half years to design in.
The hope is that we actually will come up with some solutions that actually can be implemented at the state level. So with that, I'm working on multiple fronts to try and create some solutions so the inside out course as we call it, taking Swarthmore students who are outside, inside students, guys inside the facility and putting together a collaborative effort to learn from each other but also to come up with some ideas and solutions about what we can do.
So with that, let me also just add there are a couple other things to add to the mix. You're absolutely right to say that the problem starts early and a lot of it is, and so many of the communities I've worked with, particularly in Philly, Chester, Memphis, and Daytona Beach specifically, individual kids are born impoverished, dispariting poverty. That's a huge barrier to begin with. Add to that the over punishment inside schools. I have a student at U Penn who's doing her dissertation on the severe punishment that often times is handed to Latino and black males in particular. With know that there are high dropout rates. There's a huge correlation between high school dropout rates and the likelihood that someone will engage in criminal activity. Add to that these guys are idle.
So in the eight years I've worked with them, they are idle and so they are hanging around on the corners. I have one guy who I work with, incredibly, incredibly bright, who happens to have a serious alcohol addiction and he worked, unfortunately he got fired. He was a mechanic, got fired and he's just hanging around all day and so he decides to drive to meet his girlfriend, pick her up from work and he's swerving along 476 and he's pulled over by a state trooper, who of course runs the car, realizes he doesn't have any license, he's got priors. So by the time I meet him over at the county facility, he had already been in jail for about a year or so.
I asked him ... RT was his nickname, "What happened? How is it that you got here?" and he says, "Look, [inaudible 00:38:23] I had nothing to do. I'm idle. What do I do but just go out and ..." so, so many of the guys find themselves in circumstances in which they're making wrong choices, hanging out with wrong friends, and then impetuously making all kinds of decision that in other context might not necessarily jam them up. In this situation it ends up being really, really problematic and in some instances, catastrophic.
Add to that the other piece and that is class ends up being a huge, important part of the puzzle. So the folks I see over at the county prison, who should not be there less than a two-year sentence. It's usually supposed to be there for individuals who have a sentence of two years or less or they're there because they're waiting for trial. There are a lot of folks in the county prison who are there simply because they can't post 10% of $1000 bail, which is problematic and my students rightly remind me of that. "Reeves, you're interested in the interconnection between the incarceration poverty, don't forget class." They're really very adamant, "Don't forget class, don't forget class."
Then you add to the mix someone who does time, who comes out after two or three years or so, who will hire him or her? In Pennsylvania there are at least 50 to 60 job categories for which ex-offenders cannot be hired at all and some of it makes sense, bank telling and so one, but other things, even some licensing ... We have a friend of ours who works in Ohio, she says and reports that if you want to be licensed barber in Ohio, you're denied your licensing papers.
So all of those things are ways in which we create barriers that then makes it very difficult for these men to find work, and then of course, they're out of work and we know the recidivism rate is pretty high, in part because within three years, a large percentage of them will go back inside prison, in part because they've either committed a new crime or they're there for technical violations, parole violations, they haven't shown up for a urine test, they haven't shown up for a court appointment, they haven't been able to pay child arrears, which in some states continues to still be calculated even though these guys are inside the facility and they're making $2-$3 an hour a day. So there are all kinds of ways in which we jam them up, making it difficult such that when they come up, they're landmines that are making it extraordinarily difficult for them to remain part of the community.
One of the things that we have done in Memphis is we have a demonstration project that actually is ... we hope to be in partnership with the Department of Parole, Department of Corrections, The Housing Authority, 'cause these guys are often times denied public housing and connecting with a set of entrepreneurs who are willing to hire these guys, provided that we do a lot of pre-release training and so forth with them, and in exchange for these guys being hired, there's a consortium of small entrepreneurs who will provide a whole range of knowledge and services and support to the entrepreneurs, so they can at least connect these guys.
The goals is to try to create a reliable job engine. That's the goal, that's the hope, but it's an extraordinarily complex partnership with government, with all of these agencies, with entrepreneurs and we're hopeful that it will work but for me, that's the only means that I can see that we push some notion of entrepreneurship so that these guys can get some meaningful, gainful employment that then hopefully will begin to turn things around.
One last thing to add on the suggestion piece is I have a chapter in a book that just came out in March or April of this past year and it's edited by former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, who has been working in this space enormously for the last several years or so and he's created a wonderful program called the Amachi Program, which is a mentoring program for the kids of folks who have parents in prison. The goal is to connect them with a meaningful mentor, connect them with someone who cares about them, two or three hours a month and connecting them and getting out to movies and all those kinds of things. Seems to be working in terms of preventing them from taking a similar path that their parents have.
So there are a lot of solutions out there and then lastly I would say we have to reduce prison admissions. A lot of these folks have been in prison far too long and we have to reduce their stays and we also have to make sure that we prevent the low-hanging fruit, if you will, the war on drugs is largely responsible for a great portion of the prison increase, particularly 70% or so of the folks who are, at least in state prisons, are there because of some drug substance abuse. A lot of these folks also have mental illness, so the Social Services piece is something we have to do as well, but it's a very complicated, comprehensive package.
My own view, and I'll be quiet for a moment is if we don't do something about this, not simply will we see the chaos in lots of urban communities, but we also know that as long as these guys remain out of legitimate employment, they're not contributing to Social Security and we know what the ratio is of individuals who are contributing to Social Security and the ratio of folks who are pulling their benefits out. This is something that the country has to take seriously in order to do something about. The country was very successful in moving women from welfare to work and part of what some of us who operate in this space are arguing, is for a similar effort to be directed toward so many of these men who are incarcerated. Understandably, they themselves will tell you, they're not easiest group to advocate for, but country has to do something if we were going to get off of this trajectory.
Question here and then we'll go here.
Audience Member: What percentage of your middle age and elderly prisoners who are released end up [inaudible 00:44:41]?
Keith Reeves: I see a number of them, a large percentage of them here in the population I work with and it's a really disturbing facet of those. Individuals who go off to serve the country honorably, some of them happen to come back with drug addicts, substance abuse, mental illness a huge piece of the puzzle as well, and they find themselves homeless and/or in prison. One of the things that we are looking at and some of my students are specifically taking on this work is looking at veterans courts. There's some great models, particularly in New York State, in which rather than send these veterans to prison, veteran courts are being set up as an alternative means of getting the social services, the counseling, the help and so forth that they need so that they get diverted from having to do two or three, four, five years in prison and that seems to be really quite successful. Those are models that can be replicated, and it turns out, not simply do they work, but they're less expensive.
It costs, in Pennsylvania about $31,000 a year to incarcerate an individual and that's assuming the individual is healthy. So if it's someone who has chronic illness, lung disease, heart disease, and so on, we can pay upwards of $72-$76,000 a year just for that one individual. So the costs are staggering and part of what has to be done is looking at alternative means that work but also that are cost effective.
In Pennsylvania, I think the Department of Corrections' budget is something on the order of 1.7 to 1.8 billion dollars. It's the second largest budget item in the state and we were slated to build four new prisons, we're building three new prisons over the next several years. At present, the state correctional population is 51,000. Remind you, this does not include the country, which has about 3,000-4,000 individuals there, this does not include the Philadelphia prison system, which is totally operating outside of the state system, but presently 51,000 folks are in prison and the state is planning three new prisons. It's expecting a prison population of about 61,000 people and the one point to add, all of you know this, is even while this prison population has been growing over the last several decades, the crime rate across the country has been falling.
So there is no correlation between rising crime rates and rising prison population, so we have to ask the question, where is this coming from? Why is the boom? The boom is coming from the war on drugs, the boom is coming from the fact that economic development for rural communities is, give us a prison. That's what the research and that's what the data indicate.
The prison growth in the country from the mid-1980s through 2000, the largest share of new prisons in the country were built and have been built in rural communities. Pennsylvania has 26, 27 correctional facilities. Chester is the only urban prison and it was designed specifically by the Secretary who wanted to make sure that at least gave some of these individuals a closer link. We know the research is real clear. If I am able to link with my family and friends and visitors, I do better, there are less disciplinary actions and so on and so on. People turn out to be good citizens while they're in the facility and you help them re-enter society when it's their time to go.
So we've got to do something about this problem, but the real, real huge concern also is for those individuals who are veterans and who get caught up in this system, that ends up being a real, real difficult spiraling piece for them.
There was a question here and then I'll take here.
Audience Member: [inaudible 00:48:47] programs [inaudible 00:48:50]
Keith Reeves: Yeah, and it's very tough. In Pennsylvania, three-quarters of the jobs are located outside of Philadelphia County, so it means the jobs are located in the suburbs, so you have to make sure that there's training and you have to have transportation, you have to make sure where the jobs are, that the individuals that you're trying to connect can actually be the kind of employees that those employers want. So many of the guys I work with are tattooed all over the place. While I believe in the freedom of expression, we are now, 70% of our economy is service oriented and so that's one thing that we have to also deal with.
My colleague, Michelle Alexander, who has a terrific book out some of you well called "The New Jim Crow" and she was here at Temple last night. She is sort of making the case, really quite remarkably that this extraordinary, extraordinarily difficult time that we're in because the prison population keeps growing and how do you connect people to work. They are denied housing, they are denied employment, and Michelle argues this is the one space in which it is legally okay to discriminate against individuals who have done time and lot of employers see that.
Those of you know the Ban the Box initiative, most state employment applications, there's a question that typically is asked, "Have you served time? Have you been convicted or arrested?" Most individuals have to check that box. There are campaigns across the country, some of them successful that have essentially eliminated that box from the employment form, so that at lest if I'm applying, that's not the first thing that an employer sees, in which case the resume, the application of course, now goes in the trash. This whole notion of connecting individuals to employment is really, really difficult and challenging and the Pathways Out of Poverty Grant, we applied for two of them, one in Memphis and one with a group in California is hopefully, gonna help in that regard, but it's extraordinarily difficult work.
Audience Member: [inaudible 00:51:08]
Keith Reeves: Some of these guys know that 65% of their employment earnings can be garnished and how do you tell a guy to say, do legitimate work when he perceives or believes that much of his earnings are going to be garnished and he can't quite seem to get from underneath this. It's also the case in some parts of the country that the individual whose been incarcerated now is released, has to pay court costs, restitution, victim restitution fees and in some instances, some communities, you have to pay for the cost of your imprisonment as astounding and absurd as that sounds. So they end up being enormously, enormously burdened and part of the challenge is how to get them some space, give them hope, at the same time connect them meaningfully to work and keep them on the straight and narrow path so that they can begin to get their lives together 'cause of course, so many of them have children as well, which is another huge concern.
So we've been looking at this over the last several years and all but the challenge enormously, absolutely enormously and all variables are interlocked. You get someone a job and he's terrific, he loves it, you get him the transportation and he has one relapse or he has mental breakdown or stressed out or is overwhelmed or somehow has an encounter at work that doesn't quite go as well and all of a sudden, the whole piece falls apart and that's the challenge of how do you put together a protective net around the individual, the community, the family so that he or she can begin to heal in a way that really will be good for the individual but also for the family and also for the community and that's a challenge.
There's a question here and then we'll go here. Yes.
Audience Member: My name is David[inaudible 00:52:54] I'm one of the parents as well and I really appreciate hearing your presentation. Some things that are very dear to me about [inaudible 00:53:04] and for me is the connection that you're making between our values and [inaudible 00:53:12] and what want to hear.
Keith Reeves: I appreciate your saying that. I will need to put everything you said into my iPhone so from time to time I can listen and pull it up when I have particularly bad moment and wondering if this is gonna work or not. I appreciate your saying it. That's my ultimate vision and dream is to do exactly as David described. When I left the Kennedy School in '99, I came back to Swarthmore partly because I was here as an undergrad. This was an opportunity for me to connect Swarthmore and Chester and I've been operating this space for 13 years now. I've enjoyed every moment of it and the reason why I continue to stay at Swarthmore is really because of the students.
I've been pried with attempts to sort of lure me away but I love where I am, in part because I get a chance to not simply have wonderful, wonderful students, my work is better as a result of being here than it ever was when I was at the Kennedy School and I say that in all sincerity and as much as I've been operating the space with mentoring the guys, working with them and so on, my goal was how could I connect my students and connect the institution in a meaningful way that actually would be more than just going down and spending a bit of hours in the community.
So the first part of this is to do the course, the Politics of Punishment course and we're very excited about that and then to figure out how that works and if there were other departments inside the college who might come with us and join in. I have one student, I won't embarrass her, who is doing a wonderful project around financial literacy, which is an important piece of the puzzle. So many of these guys, some of them, Jessie, if he gets out, he's a life sentence and he's now in his early 60s. The hope is that he will eventually get out but if he gets out, he's never seen an ATM machine. He has no clue that we are doing all kinds of things with technology, iPhones and so on. So this one student is going to be able to bring some financial literacy to those individuals but also to their families. So we're looking and thinking how can grow this in a way that really brings the institutional piece.
I will describe why this is such an ideal envision of mine. When Governor Rendell, before he left office last year, he had commuted the sentences of three males who were given life terms and two of them I had met. I did some training even though I had been working in the space for the last couple years or so, I knew that teaching inside a facility and bringing my students along with some of the guys that we worked with, I didn't have that skillset and so I went through some specialized training from the Inside Out Program at Temple, which is a wonderful, wonderful program. We did our training at Greaterford.
So I met two of the individuals that Governor Rendell, whose sentences he commuted. One of them turned out to be the President of the Lifers Association and they knew me before I came into the facility because of my work in Chester and the county. So he pulled me aside. He pulled me aside and says, "Doc," and he's looking at me, we're having lunch, and he says to me, he says, "We need a course of politics and public policy. We need this 'cause we need to understand how the political system is jamming us up but at the same time what we can do and we know Swarthmore students are bright," and he says, "You know folks are gonna try to get you to come to Greaterford but whatever you can do to sort of really give us a course on politics and public policy, that is what we would want."
So I thought about it and thought, "This is gonna be really heavy lifting," and started the process of trying to get that in place. So for two-and-a-half years we've been working on that and we finally got it approved, knock on wood, because all kinds of things can happen but we're very, very excited that we're gonna get a chance to bring in the space. So as we were mocking up the course and trying it out for a dry run, I always take my students inside the prison, we get a wonderful tour, they get a chance to see the space and again, in the Swarthmore that only we can do it, marry theory with practice and with the being in the space and the students, of course, are incredible.
One of them, Peter Gardner, who is in DC now, had the fortune or misfortune of coming with me when we were going to prison in the morning and we were there for four or five hours or so and later that evening he was introducing Congressman Joe Sestak and to this day he is still just trying to figure out that dissidence of being in prison, three miles from the college, and now just the same day, a few hours later, he's connecting with a US Congressman.
So he sends me an email, as so many of my students do, over the course of the year and I hear from them always at the right time, when I'm in a moment of about to giving up. It always comes at the right moment where they come and say that experience of taking us in and that experience of giving us a chance to marry our values and our theory with the practice has been incredible and even if we're not working in the space that you're working in, that experience stays with us and it is the most meaningful experience for them. So we're trying to do that and my hope is that we will be able to do more of it. It's an incredibly, incredibly heavy lifting as you can imagine but we will just take a little bit at a time.
That would be my vision, is to figure out if we can do a campus-wide, a sort of adoption of the correctional facility if you will, with lots of folks, not simply students but faculty, lots of our alums, lots of our wonderful staff who work here who want to operate in this space and give something meaningful to this community.
When we were doing the course we have a wonderful closing ceremony and I invited Tyrone Wortz who was the President of the Lifers Association who comes and spends time with us in this last closeout and of course for the students it was wonderful because they had a chance to meet him and I said to him, "Just be honest and candid. My students can handle it. We can take it," and we had an extraordinary, extraordinarily few hours with him in which the students could see the connections that I was trying to get them to make and of course, Tyrone, who looks like a federal judge ... if you see him, he looks just like a federal judge. It's astounding to us that he was in prison. At that time he was doing ... he had done 36 years before Governor Rendell commuted his sentence and he's trying to find ways in which he can be helpful for us and to our students.
So we're trying to think creatively about how to make all of this work. I would love your ideas, your participation, your support, anything that you can, your encouragement, but I like this idea of being able to do something even grander and more ambitious than what we are doing here. So thank you very much for that.
There was a question I thought over here. Yes?
Audience Member: Focusing on [inaudible 01:00:11]
Keith Reeves: The question was, if I can paraphrase a bit. The impact of this on children, is it best for them to see their fathers in this situation or not. The research I think is a bit mixed on this. We don't know, quite honestly. I have a lot of personal ethnographic experience that suggests that it turns out to be good for the kid and for the father and that's all anecdotal. What I would because I'm a social scientist is, of course, classic control treatment experiment, figuring out how guys and the kids do if they're not given access to their parents, their fathers and so on. At the SEI Chester Prison, Superintendent Bryd, set the space up not simply because it's there and the kids in common spend time there, it's really quite extraordinary to see and to see the guys, who knowing that they might have a visit from their kids, do everything that they're supposed to, so I think that there's some correlation between the visits and access to their kids and the lack of disciplinary infractions, all of those kinds of things.
One of the things that concerns me, and we have a separate research project on this, is for most of these kids in the urban community, particularly adolescents, their fist civic engagement, their fist civic lesson is really, unfortunately, with law enforcement or the courts, or seeing a parent or a loved on or an uncle or a neighbor ensnarled in the criminal justice system. What I know to be the case with lots of kids I've worked with and spent time with in Chester and Philly, Daytona Beach, Memphis, is that they have very now corrosive attitudes about the "criminal justice system" because they view it as unfair and discriminatory.
If we don't do something to really, really come in and change that perception, as a country, irrespective of the community, we're in real trouble. We're in real trouble because now you will see kids and others around them who will consciously and deliberately do everything they can to undermine the criminal justice system and in many instances, that's part of what we've been seeing.
When King, in the aftermath of the 1965 riots said, "If I feel that I have no stake in my community. If I feel that I have no stake in my community, I will unconsciously seek to destroy," and that's essentially what has been happening in lots of urban communities across the last couple decades or so, is that there is this disconnect between adults and kids and once they feel that they're not valued ... When I go to the barber shop every week or every other week, my barber, whose in his 70s says to me, "I'm a throwaway guy," and that always disturbs me. I always have a tear in my eye when he says that because he's saying to me, and I said to him, "You have to stop saying that to me 'cause I come in with a great attitude and I'm an optimistic person. I leave and you have me drinking a couple glasses of wine," but what he says and it disturbs me, but that's the sense of every guy I've ever worked with.
That's why, for me, the whole notion of giving them hope is so critical. Most of these guys believe that they are throwaway people. Those of you who know and are familiar with King's last campaign, not simply the Poor People's March, but he got diverted to go to Memphis. Why? Because he was advocating on behalf of garbage workers who were not paid very much and for the African American garbage workers, when it rained, they could not come inside with their white fellow sanitation workers. So heavy rain, two guys, African American sanitation workers, could not come inside with their white counterparts and they were taking shelter in the back of their trash truck. No one realized they were there and they were killed. So when you see the placard and we remember the placard "I am a Man. I am a man, not some piece of garbage" essentially. So many of the guys I work with over the years view themselves as garbage, view themselves as throwaway guys and somehow we have to change that perception and that reality.
Thank you guys so much for your time. Appreciate it, enjoy your weekend. Thank you.