Referencing the 1853 National Colored Convention in which notable freedmen including Frederick Douglas met to discuss abolition and freedmen’s rights, Alexander connects modern day criminals with the scorned, powerless slaves of the past—even suggesting that modern criminals receive less respect than black men who lived in the Jim Crow south.
Alexander bemoans the fact that judges and attorneys are not required to inform defendants of the consequences of accepting plea deals. Many felons who plead guilty to avoid long prison sentences do not realize the rights they forfeit for life or the lifetime of discrimination a criminal record entails. Alexander reasons that many felons, once released from prison, buckle under the burdens of such discrimination, a factor that majorly contributes to high recidivism rates.
One form of discrimination many felons face is in public housing assistance. Upon release from prison, many individuals have difficulty finding a reliable place to stay for a variety of reasons, including sparse family support or lack of income. These individuals often discover, however, that their felon status prevents them from receiving any Section 8 housing assistance, eliminating another potential path to residency. In the late 1980s, a series of reforms were passed that established this exclusionary practice. Not only are felons excluded but also anyone whom a Housing and Urban Development Department worker suspects of criminality. The “no fault” clause attached to every HUD-issued lease also permits the eviction of tenants whose relatives or guests are arrested for any crime on or near public housing property. As a result, many public housing residents do not allow relatives recently released from prison to temporarily stay at their homes for fear that their guests’ felon label will result in sudden eviction. Together, these factors increase the likelihood that felons become homeless, itself a factor that puts felons at a higher risk of re-offending.
Convicted criminals also face discrimination when looking for work. Most parole districts require parolees to maintain employment, yet it is considered reasonable for many employers to deny jobs to those with a criminal record. Criminals need income to provide their basic needs, including housing, but many jobs available to them do not provide enough income to cover even a menial lifestyle. Adding to these barriers, many criminals have low education levels and little skills training, meaning few nearby industries are willing to hire them. While criminals can often find factory or construction work, many of these jobs are located beyond the urban vicinity in which most former felons live. This paucity of job opportunities, often further complicated by a lack of reliable transportation, makes it extremely difficult to secure stable employment.
Alexander notes that black men in particular suffer under discriminatory employment practices. Because black men are more likely to have arrest or conviction records, they are also more likely to be unemployed; one in three young black men are currently “out of work.”
Despite the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) publicizing the fact that it is illegal to flatly ban anyone with a criminal record from being considered for a job, many employers are still unwilling to amend their hiring practices. In some cities, like San Francisco, organizations have successfully lobbied to prevent such employment discrimination, yet it persists—even though employers can be prosecuted for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act should they flout EEOC guidelines.
For those who do secure stable employment, they might still face financial obstacles associated with the debts they owe to the criminal justice system. Criminals are often liable for exorbitant court costs, probation fees, and other expenses that place undue burden on individuals who are...
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already struggling financially. Furthermore, many local courts charge additional fees for those unable to make full payments on time. These include late fees, payment plan fees, and debt collections fees. Failure to pay these fees—no matter how long the terms of repayment last—can result in changes to an individual’s terms of release or even to his or her sentence.
Alexander compares these fees to the debtor’s prisons from the post–Civil War era, since criminals who are often impoverished at the time of their convictions are subjected to further financial strain. Alexander says that multiple agencies, such as probationary supervision and child support enforcement, can garnish nearly 100 percent of an individual’s wages. This tempts many ex-convicts to operate outside the legal economy, which often results in reincarceration. While in prison, many inmates are forced to work at well-below minimum wage, and inmates' living expenses are often deducted from these meager wages, leaving those released from prison virtually penniless despite working while incarcerated.
In addition to the potential loss of food stamps and welfare benefits, ex-convicts in the United States are disenfranchised at rates unparalleled in other countries. Only two states allow prisoners to vote while incarcerated, and a large number of states restrict voting rights for released felons for anywhere from a few years to life. Though some states have restored voting rights to those formerly disenfranchised, many felons are uncomfortable engaging in the bureaucratic process required to regain their right to vote. Mistrust of the government is common among those whose experiences have been negative. As a result, millions of people of color do not vote in local, state, or national elections, leaving them voiceless in our democracy.
Alexander next discusses the stigma associated with the criminal label. Despite popular claims that urban people of color no longer view criminality in a negative way, most ex-convicts are deeply ashamed of their status. Family members, friends, and neighbors often reinforce this feeling of shame, safeguarding the fact that someone they know is currently or has been incarcerated. The social consequences of criminality have permanent psychological effects; those who are treated like outcasts often internalize messages of worthlessness and guilt. This silence further isolates ex-cons and their loved ones, leading to feelings of self-hatred. Furthermore, the lack of discussion within communities most affected by mass incarceration leads outsiders to believe stereotypes about the inherent criminal tendencies within such communities.
To combat this personal shame, many people in these communities embrace the criminal stigma with which they are labeled. This sociological phenomenon is prevalent among marginalized groups who reclaim the negative stereotypes that often dictate how outsiders treat members of said group. For inner city black men, the “gangsta” identity fulfills their need to feel good about themselves. Alexander notes that black communities largely condemn gangsta culture, and she acknowledges the violent, misogynistic messages central to that culture as harmful. Regardless, Alexander reasons that it is not helpful to condemn an entire community for embracing the negative expectations that society at large created.
Alexander also cautions that many depictions of gangsta culture in popular media are sensationalized, modern-day interpretations of the minstrel show. These ridiculous depictions of stereotypical gangstas are packaged for mainstream white audiences who pay money to have their racial biases confirmed via entertaining music and television. However, substantial black audiences also patronize these forms of entertainment—as they did minstrel shows. Alexander claims that this stems from black audiences’ desire to support and see people from their communities gain recognition or success, even if that attention stems from an exaggerated racial stereotype.
In the chapter’s conclusion, Alexander challenges readers to embrace the paradoxical nature of mass incarceration. She argues that it is possible to assign personal responsibility to those who commit crimes while acknowledging the unfair systems that influence and stigmatize decisions made by criminals. In embracing the humanity of so-called criminals, Alexander says, society can repair the damages of mass incarceration.