The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration: Part III-V
The Atlantic|October 2015
The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration: Part III-V
Ta-Nehisi Coates, photographs by Greg Kahn


“You don’t take a shower after 9 o’clock.”

Last winter, I visited Detroit to take the measure of the Gray Wastes. Michigan, with an incarceration rate of 628 people per 100,000, is about average for an American state. I drove to the East Side to talk with a woman I’ll call Tonya, who had done 18 years for murder and a gun charge and had been released five months earlier. She had an energetic smile and an edge to her voice that evidenced the time she’d spent locked up. Violence, for her, commenced not in the streets, but at home. “There was abuse in my grandmother’s home, and I went to school and I told my teacher,” she explained. “I had a spot on my nose because I had a lit cigarette stuck on my nose, and when I told her, they sent me to a temporary foster-care home… The foster parent was also abusive, so I just ran away from her and just stayed on the streets.”

Tonya began using crack. One night she gathered with some friends for a party. They smoked crack. They smoked marijuana. They drank. At some point, the woman hosting the party claimed that someone had stolen money from her home. Another woman accused Tonya of stealing it. A fight ensued. Tonya shot the woman who had accused her. She got 20 years for the murder and two for the gun. After the trial, the truth came out. The host had hidden the money, but was so high that she’d forgotten.

When the doors finally close and one finds oneself facing banishment to the carceral state—the years, the walls, the rules, the guards, the inmates—reactions vary. Some experience an intense sickening feeling. Others, a strong desire to sleep. Visions of suicide. A deep shame. A rage directed toward guards and other inmates. Utter disbelief. The incarcerated attempt to hold on to family and old social ties through phone calls and visitations. At first, friends and family do their best to keep up. But phone calls to prison are expensive, and many prisons are located far from one’s hometown.

“First I would get one [visit] like every four months,” Tonya explained to me. “And then I wouldn’t get none for like maybe a year. You know, because it was too far away. And I started to have losses. I lost my mom, my brothers … So it was hard, you know, for me to get visits.”

As the visits and phone calls diminish, the incarcerated begins to adjust to the fact that he or she is, indeed, a prisoner. New social ties are cultivated. New rules must be understood. A blizzard of acronyms, sayings, and jargon—PBF, CSC, ERD, “letters but no numbers”—must be comprehended. If the prisoner is lucky, someone—a cell mate, an older prisoner hailing from the same neighborhood—takes him under his wing. This can be the difference between survival and catastrophe. On Richard Braceful’s first night in Carson City Correctional Facility, in central Michigan, where he had been sent away at age 29 for armed robbery, he decided to take a shower. It was 10 p.m. His cell mate stopped him. “Where are you going?” the cell mate asked. “I’m going to take a shower,” Braceful responded. His cell mate, a 14-year veteran of the prison system, blocked his way and said, “You’re not going to take a shower.” Braceful, reading the signs, felt a fight was imminent. “Calm down,” his cell mate told him. “You don’t take a shower after 9 o’clock. People that are sexual predators, people that are rapists, they go in the showers right behind you.” Braceful and the veteran sat down. The veteran looked at him. “It’s your first time being locked up, ain’t it?” he said. “Yeah, it is,” Braceful responded. The veteran said to him, “Listen, this is what you have to do. For the next couple of weeks, just stay with me. I’ve been her for 14 years. I’ll look out for you until you learn how to move around in here without getting yourself hurt.”

Michigan prisons assign each inmate to a level corresponding to the security risk the inmate is believed to pose. As the levels decrease, privileges—yard time, for instance— increase. Level V is maximum security. Level I is for prisoners who will soon be released. At Level IV, you will find many prisoners with life sentences and not many prisoners with fewer than five years left to serve. A prisoner with a life sentence who has reached Level II has generally proved that he or she is not a danger to others. But there are very few such prisoners, because it is very hard to remain at the more draconian levels without acquiring “tickets”—demerits for violating prison protocol, often involving fighting. “It’s hard to stay ticket-free for 10 years without somebody getting stabbed, somebody getting into a fight,” Braceful, who is now out of prison, explained to me when I visited him in Detroit last December. “Because there are people that are there who might look at you and go, ‘He’s a small guy. I’m gonna take advantage of him.’ ”

When this happens, a prisoner can decide either to defend himself or to “lock up”—that is, to report to the guards that he fears for his safety. The guards will then place the prisoner in solitary for his own protection. “Those are my only two choices,” Braceful explained. “And if you lock up, everybody know you lock up. When you come back out, you gonna have a bigger problem.”

“Because you’re prey,” I said.

“Exactly,” he responded. “So you fight, you know. And then the fight gets serious enough, you gotta find something to stab with, you gotta find something, you know, you gotta make your weapon, you gotta do something.”

Michigan leads the country in the average length of a prison stay—4.3 years—yet most prisoners do eventually say goodbye. The bliss of freedom, the joy of family reunion, can quickly be tempered by the challenge of staying free. The transition can jarring. “I panicked,” Tonya told me, speaking of how it felt be out of prison after 18 years. “I was only used to a cell as opposed to having multiple rooms, and there was always somebody there with me in the cell—whether it was a bunkie or officer, somebody’s always in this building. To go from that to this? I stayed on the phone. I made people call me, you know. It was scary. And I still experience that to this day. Everybody looks suspect to me. I’m like, ‘He’s up to something.’ A friend of mine told me, ‘You’ve been gone a long time, over a decade, so it’s gonna take you about two years for you to readjust.’ ”

Richard Braceful, who served several years in the Michigan prison system, photographed at his home in Detroit. August 9, 2015.

The challenges of housing and employment bedevil many ex-offenders. “It’s very common for them to go homeless,” Linda VanderWaal, the associate director of prisoner reentry at a community-action agency in Michigan, told me. In the winter, VanderWaal says, she has a particularly hard time finding places to accommodate all the homeless ex-prisoners. Those who do find a place to live often find it difficult to pay their rent.

The carceral state has, in effect, become a credentialing institution as significant as the military, public schools, or universities—but the credentialing that prison or jail offers is negative. In her book, Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration, Devah Pager, the Harvard sociologist, notes that most employers say that they would not hire a job applicant with a criminal record. “These employers appear less concerned about specific information conveyed by a criminal conviction and its bearing on a particular job,” Pager writes, “but rather view this credential as an indicator of general employability or trustworthiness.”

Ex-offenders are excluded from a wide variety of jobs, running the gamut from septic-tank cleaner to barber to real-estate agent, depending on the state. And in the limited job pool that ex-offenders can swim in, blacks and whites are not equal. For her research, Pager pulled together four testers to pose as men looking for low-wage work. One white man and one black man would pose as job seekers without a criminal record, and another black man and white man would pose as job seekers with a criminal record. The negative credential of prison impaired the employment efforts of both the black man and the white man, but it impaired those of the black man more. Startlingly, the effect was not limited to the black man with a criminal record. The black man without a criminal record fared worse than the white man with one. “High levels of incarceration cast a shadow of criminality over all black men, implicating even those (in the majority) who have remained crime free,” Pager writes. Effectively, the job market in America regards black men who have never been criminals as though they were.

Just as ex-offenders had to learn to acculturate themselves to prison, they have to learn to re-acculturate themselves to the outside. But the attitude that helps one survive in prison is almost the opposite of the kind needed to make it outside. Craig Haney, a professor at UC Santa Cruz who studies the cognitive and psychological effects of incarceration, has observed:

A tough veneer that precludes seeking help for personal problems, the generalized mistrust that comes from the fear of exploitation, and a tendency to strike out in response to minimal provocations are highly functional in many prison contexts but problematic virtually everywhere else.

Linda VanderWaal told me that re-acculturation is essential to thriving in an already compromised job market. “I hate to say this, but it’s a reality,” she said. “Making eye contact, the way they walk—people judge you the moment you walk in the doors for an interview… We literally practice eye contact, smiling, handshaking, how you’re sitting.”

In America, the men and women who find themselves lost in the Gray Wastes are not picked at random. A series of risk factors—mental illness, illiteracy, drug addiction, poverty— increases one’s chances of ending up in the ranks of the incarcerated. “Roughly half of today’s prison inmates are functionally illiterate,” Robert Perkinson, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has noted. “Four out of five criminal defendants qualify as indigent before the courts.” Sixty-eight percent of jail inmates were struggling with substance dependence or abuse in 2002. One can imagine a separate world where the state would see these maladies through the lens of government education or public health programs. Instead it has decided to see them through the lens of criminal justice. As the number of prison beds has risen in this country, the number of public-psychiatric-hospital beds has fallen. The Gray Wastes draw from the most socio-economically unfortunate among us, and thus take particular interest in those who are black.


“The crime-stained blackness of the Negro”

It is impossible to conceive of the Gray Wastes without first conceiving of a large swath of its inhabitants as both more than criminal and less than human. These inhabitants, black people, are the preeminent outlaws of the American imagination. Black criminality is literally written into the American Constitution— the Fugitive Slave Clause, in Article IV of that document, declared that any “Person held to Service or Labour” who escaped from one state to another could be “delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” From America’s very founding, the pursuit of the right to labor, and the right to live free of whipping and of the sale of one’s children, were verboten for blacks.

The crime of absconding was thought to be linked to other criminal inclinations among blacks. Pro-slavery intellectuals sought to defend the system as “commanded by God” and “approved by Christ.” In 1860, The New York Herald offered up a dispatch on the doings of runaway slaves residing in Canada. “The criminal calendars would be bare of a prosecution but for the negro prisoners,” the report claimed. Deprived of slavery’s blessings, blacks quickly devolved into criminal deviants who plied their trade with “a savage ferocity peculiar to the vicious negro.” Blacks, the report stated, were preternaturally inclined to rape: “When the lust comes over them they are worse than the wild beast of the forest.” Nearly a century and a half before the infamy of Willie Horton, a portrait emerged of blacks as highly prone to criminality, and generally beyond the scope of rehabilitation. In this fashion, black villainy justified white oppression—which was seen not as oppression but as “the corner-stone of our republican edifice.”

To fortify the “republican edifice,” acts considered legal when committed by whites were judged criminal when committed by blacks. In 1850, a Missouri man named Robert Newsom purchased a girl named Celia, who was about 14 years old. For the next five years, he repeatedly raped her. Celia birthed at least one child by Newsom. When she became pregnant again, she begged Newsom to “quit forcing her while she was sick.” He refused, and one day in June of 1855 informed Celia that he “was coming to her cabin that night.” When Newsom arrived and attempted to rape Celia again, she grabbed a stick “about as large as the upper part of a Windsor chair” and beat Newsom to death. A judge rejected Celia’s self-defense claim, and she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. While she was in jail, she gave birth to the child, who arrived stillborn. Not long after, Celia was hanged.


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October 2015