An Answerless Abyss

An unheard cry for justice in what is a seemingly answerless abyss — this is the reality of racial injustice in the United States of America today. With an estimated 1 in every 3 black men going to prison in their lifetime, this matter has evolved into a massive civil rights issue, making it to the headlines of countless news sources such as The New York Times and U.S. News. But why exactly is this an issue? Why do we bother giving it more than a moment’s thought?

Roughly 30 percent of the United States’ population is made up of people of color, yet 60 percent of those imprisoned are of color, making them over-represented in the prison population of today’s society. In other words, individuals of color are being disproportionately incarcerated, sentenced to longer prison times, and even becoming subject to the death penalty more than their white counterparts. Not only is this causing a regression in civil rights in America, but it’s also threatening communities of color by denying equal access to employment, housing, education, voting rights, and countless rights that are no longer being upheld due to the severity of this issue.

It’s these same people who can’t seem to find employment once they get out of prison. In a recent study, it was discovered that having a prison record reduces one’s chances of being hired by 15%, but wait, aren’t we sending people to prison so they ultimately become better, more productive individuals in society? We as a nation have cultivated the framework for a community that simply creates those who become dependent on the system. In fact, this was estimated to be $57 to $65 billion lost in economic output in 2008 simply because of high unemployment among ex-offenders. This was roughly 1.5-1.7 million jobs that we lost; this was money that we will ultimately pay in other ways.  Ex-offenders are being denied access to productive jobs that stimulate the economy, and it’s these same victims who end up being the reason for money lost on a state level as well. Beneficiaries of state aid such as prisons and universities compete for dwindling state budgets each year, resulting in education taking a massive hit due to spending cutbacks. This ultimately led to corrections spending being the third largest category of spending for states each year; in other words, we are letting our state government spend more on supporting prisoners than on preventing an increase in offenders. As states begin to spend more and more money on the prison system, they begin to cut spending on education in high-poverty neighborhoods. America has simply become a place where people are being punished for what they were essentially brought up to be through their lack of education. It’s even estimated that children who grow up in high-poverty rate homes are twice as likely to become not only offenders of the law, but they are also more likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes involving firearms. By not employing today’s ex-offenders, we are formulating the perfect environment for future offenders through a lack of education. Whether it’s a setback for our society, or an economic hit, or a flaw in the prison system creating a larger prisoner population, it has become a growing issue that we cannot ignore.

Something, however, is being done. Some cities are trying to remove unfair barriers to employment for ex-convicts, by expunging the felony convictions from their job applications in hopes to better the lives of those affected by this social epidemic. President Obama has also taken initiative on this issue. In November of 2015, he requested that federal agencies no longer ask prospective workers about their prison records in hopes to alleviate the number of unemployed ex-convicts in America.

But what can we do as a society? Although most of the power that affects this issue stems from those in politics, it begins with those who see an issue and spread awareness — us, which ultimately works it way up to those in authority. Although President Obama holds a great deal of influence over how this this issue is being addressed, it comes down to Congress’ final vote. In a world run by technology, a lot of politicians’ political views are altered by those who are electing them into office. Spreading awareness can be as easy as simply hitting “share” on a social media post on the subject, or as proactive as starting a rally.

Essentially, all we can do is educate ourselves, and show support and concern for those affected by racial injustice in the prison system, as well as their lives after their sentences. Help from us can be quite effortless, but the effects it will have on those affected ultimately could be life-changing.

(Copyright 2016 Janice Negvesky)

Janice Negvesky