When my friend finds the time, he drops by The Star to visit and update me on his progress.
We first met in the 1990s when he was in prison. He has been on parole a few years, has a job, a home and has reconnected with his kids and grandkids. But more than 20 years of incarceration and the road back to normal have been far from easy for him and his family.
That’s also the point of a recent report, “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families.” The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and more than a dozen other groups that work with people who’ve been incarcerated put together the study, explaining that prison burdens families and communities with financial and emotional costs.
“Each year the United States spends $80 billion to lock away more than 2.4 million people in its jails and prisons — budgetary allocations that far outpace spending on housing, transportation and education,” the report said. “Families pay both the apparent and hidden costs while their loved ones serve out sentences in our jails and prisons.”
Those costs include legal expenses, court fees and fines, telephone and visitation charges, and food and clothing items during incarceration.
“Many families lose income when a family member is removed from household wage earning and struggle to meet basic needs while paying fees, supporting their loved one financially and bearing the cost of keeping in touch,” the report said. “Women bear the brunt of the costs — both financial and emotional — of their loved one’s incarceration,” the study said.
They will jeopardize their own stability. Families take on a huge amount of debt in communities where little wealth exists.
“These impacts hit women of color and their families more substantially than others, deepening inequities and societal divides that have pushed many into the criminal justice system in the first place,” the study says. “Almost one in every four women and two of five black women are related to someone who is incarcerated.”
Additional costs include health care, mental health support, loss of children, permanent drops in income, and vanishing education and employment opportunities for inmates and family members. The lost opportunities result “in a lack of economic stability and mobility,” the report noted.
I asked my friend about that, and on a later visit he produced his state “Intervention Fee Program” paperwork, showing that he has to pay $30 a month throughout the duration of his parole or risk being sent back to prison. He explained that he has to have a job, even though getting one is more difficult for ex-offenders and he has to have good housing.
“It’s stressful,” said my friend, who asked that his name not be used to keep from upsetting state officials who could send him back to prison.
“I get tired of paying that $30,” my friend said. “But I haven’t forgotten where I came from. I use my past as a tool to keep me focused out here.”
In addition to his job and staying connected with his family, my friend works with young people to keep them out of trouble. “I keep trying to spread the word of inner peace,” he said.
“It’s emotional,” he said of his family. “You put pressure on yourself. You think you can get those years back but you can’t. There’s an empty space.”
The report recommends that the criminal justice system be restructured to reduce the number of people incarcerated and then reinvest the money into services to end substance abuse and support families. Barriers in housing, jobs, education and public assistance need to be removed so ex-offenders can re-enter society. Opportunities to break generational cycles of poverty also need to be restored for ex-offenders and their families.
They have to have a bright future and people who will cheer them on.