American Nightmare: The Poverty to Prison Pipeline
Is socioeconomic status a predictor of incarceration? We highlight an exhaustive report uncovering shocking connections between poverty and incarceration.
News Beat is a multi-award-winning podcast that melds hard-hitting journalism with hip-hop to inform, educate, and inspire. This episode exposes the brutal truth behind poverty and incarceration in America.
By now, faithful listeners of this podcast know we’ve tried our best to contextualize this country’s mass incarceration crisis in ways that few mainstream outlets even attempt. We’ve covered everything from the draconian cash bail system and its perverted two-tiered system of justice, mental illness fueling incarceration rates, the prison abolition movement, and how dragnet surveillance exacerbates racial inequities in policing.
Well, we’re back on the mass incarceration beat again, this time with a devastating look at how poverty is criminalized in this country. The inspiration for this episode is a new report from the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, which did the hard work of digging through a government survey of those formerly incarcerated. Even for us, the findings were shocking.
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Why We Covered This Topic
Many of you are well aware of America’s obsession with incarceration. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Right now, more than 2.2 million people are incarcerated, with the majority locked up in state prisons. For anyone considering how to confront our incarceration crisis, it’d be foolish not to address some of the root causes of crime and imprisonment. For example, and as we’ve previously covered, mental illness is one of the largest drivers of incarceration in America. One of the biggest takeaways from that episode, which you can find here, is that the three largest jails in the country house more people with mental illness than any psychiatric facility in the nation. It’s astonishing.
In this episode, we examine how poverty is in many cases a predictor of incarceration. We’re able to do this thanks to the work of the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a nonprofit research organization that focuses exclusively on incarceration and criminalization. PPI researchers analyzed huge amounts of data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, culminating in a hugely significant report.
What You’ll Learn in This Episode
While we want you to hear the sobering details straight from our guests on the podcast, here are a few:
About 40 percent of people incarcerated in state prison were jobless in the month preceding their arrest, according to PPI’s analysis, which also found that Black Americans had the highest rate of joblessness (46 percent) of any race or ethnicity surveyed.
Of those who were employed prior to being arrested, 20 percent were working two jobs—a much higher rate than the general population, PPI found.
Unstable housing is also common among people with justice involvement, according to the data. As PPI says: “[F]or many people, unstable housing was a fact of life before prison, and this precarity may have contributed to their later incarceration. The survey data show that 4.9% of people in prison were living in a homeless shelter or on the streets in the 30 days before arrest, another 3.4% were living in transitional housing or a residential treatment facility, and another 3.7% were in prison or jail in the 30 days before their arrest. Finally, 6.5% of people in state prisons were living in a hotel, motel, or rooming house; altogether, more than one-fifth (22%) were experiencing housing instability or homelessness shortly before they were incarcerated.”
Perhaps the most brutal findings are related to youth justice system involvement. According to PPI, most people in state prison were first arrested as a youth (68 percent), including more than one-third before turning 16. “This is an extraordinary number of youth being arrested, a traumatizing experience that also increases the risk of re-arrest,” PPI writes.
Who We Interviewed & What They Said
“It can be kind of uncomfortable to talk about the degree of of poverty, the degree of disadvantage that this million-plus people in state prisons have because for decades, people in power have have been twisting the narrative to sort of demonize people who are on welfare, demonizing people for being, quote, ‘lazy,’ or just having criminal tendencies. I mean, just the word ‘criminals’—we definitely have to put that in quotes, because it's not criminals who drive prison populations, it's policy choices and our culture that has driven mass incarceration. So you know, the data totally refute that. But it's sort of an affront to the narrative that has been in place for decades, which is that there's a whole sort of swath of people who just aren't cut out for X, Y, and Z, and are deserving of incarceration, which is of course not true. And they deserve so much better.”
“In 2019, we released a report, ‘Ending the Poverty to Prison Pipeline,’ where we examine the correlation in the relationship between poverty, race, and justice system involvement. And no surprise, we know that if you are poor in New York City, and especially if you are living in poverty and a person of color, there is an increased likelihood that you will be drawn into the criminal justice system. And so we know justice system involvement exacerbates the already enormous challenges associated with building economic equity, and it's a double-edged sword, where once you are in the criminal justice system, you are more likely to remain poor and lack economic tools to pay for mobility. And at the same time, being poor increases your risk of justice system involvement. This is not a surprise. We know that poverty is criminalized.”
Check out Prison Policy Initiative’s report on people in state prisons, which covers everything from gender and identity and sexual orientation to socioeconomic status and substance abuse. If you want to dig into the source material, here’s the Bureau of Justice Statistics survey from which the PPI analysis was based.
Here’s FPWA’s comprehensive report called “Ending the Poverty to Prison Pipeline.”
To learn more about what fuels the mass incarceration crisis, here’s our podcast episode called “Mentally Ill & Incarcerated.”
An exhaustive summary of mass incarceration and related issues can be found on our site. It breaks down everything from cash bail and wrongful imprisonment to the War on Drugs, reforms, and much more.
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News Beat is a multi-award-winning podcast brought to you by Morey Creative Studios and Manny Faces Media.
Audio Editor/Sound Designer/Producer/Host: Manny Faces
Editor-In-Chief/Producer: Christopher Twarowski
Managing Editor/Producer: Rashed Mian
Episode Art: Jeff Main
Executive Producer: Jed Morey