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


“It’s like i’m in prison with him.”

On the evening of December 19, 1973, Odell Newton, who was then 16 years old, stepped into a cab in Baltimore with a friend, rode half a block, then shot and killed the driver, Edward Mintz. The State of Maryland charged Odell with crimes including murder in the first degree and sentenced him to life in prison. He has now spent 41 years behind bars, but by all accounts he is a man reformed. He has repeatedly expressed remorse for his crimes. He has not committed an infraction in 36 years.

The Maryland Parole Commission has recommended Odell for release three times since 1992. But in Maryland, all release recommendations for lifers are subject to the governor’s approval. In the 1970s, when Odell committed his crime, this was largely a formality. But in our era of penal cruelty, Maryland has effectively abolished parole for lifers—even juvenile offenders such as Odell. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles found guilty of crimes other than homicide were unconstitutional. Two years later, it held the same for mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile homicide offenders. But the Court has yet to rule on whether that more recent decision was retroactive. Fifteen percent of Maryland’s lifers committed their crimes as juveniles—the largest percentage in the nation, according to a 2015 report by the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative and the state’s ACLU affiliate. The vast majority of them—84 percent—are black.

This summer, I visited Odell’s mother, Clara; his sister Jackie; and his brother Tim at Clara’s home in a suburb of Baltimore. Clara had just driven seven hours round-trip to visit Odell at Eastern Correctional Institution, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and she was full of worry. He was being treated for hepatitis. He’d lost 50 pounds. He had sores around his eyes.

I asked Clara how they managed to visit Odell regularly. She explained that family members trade visits. “It takes a lot out of the family,” she explained. “Then you come back home, [after] you’ve seen him up there like that, [and] you’re crying. I got so bad one time, I was losing weight… Just thinking, Was it gonna be all right? Was it gonna kill him? Was he gonna die?

Clara was born and raised in Westmoreland, Virginia. She had her first child, Jackie, when she was only 15. The next year she married Jackie’s father, John Irvin Newton Sr. They moved to Baltimore so that John could pursue a job at a bakery. “We stuck it out and made things work,” Clara told me. They were married for 53 years, until John passed away, in 2008.

Odell Newton was born in 1957. When he was 4 years old, he fell ill and almost died. The family took him to the hospital. Doctors put a hole in his throat to help him breathe. They transferred Odell to another hospital, where he was diag­nosed with lead-poisoning. It turned out that he had been putting his mouth on the windowsill.

“We didn’t sue nobody. We didn’t know nothing about that,” Clara told me. “And when we finally found out that you could sue, Odell was 15. And they said they couldn’t do anything, because we waited too long.”

In prison, Odell has repeatedly attempted to gain his G.E.D., failing the test several times. “My previous grade school teacher noted that I should be placed in special education,” Odell wrote in a 2014 letter to his lawyer. “It is unclear what roll childhood lead-poisoning played in my analytical capabilities.”

In June of 1964, the family moved into a nicer house, in Edmondson Village. Sometime around ninth grade, Clara began to suspect that Odell was lagging behind the other kids in his class. “We didn’t fnd out that he was really delayed until he was almost ready to enter into high school,” Jackie told me. “They just passed him on and passed him on.” Around this time, Clara says, Odell got “mixed up with the wrong crowd.” Not until he wrote his first letter home from prison did Clara understand the depth of his intellectual dis­ability. The letter read as though it had been written by “a child just starting pre-­K or kindergarten,” Clara told me. “He couldn’t really spell. And, I don’t know, it just didn’t look like a person of his age should be writing like that.”

Odell Newton is now 57. He has spent the lion’s share of his life doing time under state supervision. The time he’s served has not affected him alone. If men and women like Odell are cast deep within the barrens of the Gray Wastes, their families are held in a kind of orbit, on the outskirts, by the relentless gravity of the carceral state. For starters, the family must con­tend with the financial expense of having a loved one incarcer­ated. Odell’s parents took out a second mortgage to pay for their son’s lawyers, and then a third. Beyond that, there’s the expense of having to make long drives to prisons that are com­monly built in rural white regions, far from the incarcerated’s family. There’s the expense of phone calls, and of constantly restocking an inmate’s commissary. Taken together, these economic factors fray many a family’s bonds.

And then there is the emotional weight, a mix of anger and sadness. While I was in Detroit last winter, I interviewed Patri­cia Lowe, whose son Edward Span had been incarcerated at age 16, sentenced to nine and a half to 15 years for car jacking, among other offenses. When I met with Patricia, Edward was about three years into his sentence, and she was as worried for him as she was angry at him. He’d recently begun calling home and requesting large sums of money. She was afraid he was being extorted by other prisoners. At the same time, she was unhappy about carrying the burden Edward had placed on her after all the hard work she’d put in as a mother. “He never ate school lunch. I would get up in the morning and make subs, sandwiches, salads, spaghetti, fried chicken,” she said. “We had dysfunction, but what family don’t? There’s no excuse for his misbehavior. So whatever you did out there, you can’t do in here. You know what it’s about. I told you out here what’s going to happen in there. So you gave me heartache out here. You can’t give it to me in there.”

But the heartache was unavoidable. “It’s like I’m in prison with him. I feel like I’m doing every day of that nine-and-a-half to 15.” When he was 17, Edward was taken from juvenile detention and put in an adult prison. Even in juvenile, Edward couldn’t sleep at night. “He feared going to prison,” Patricia told me. “He calls home and tells me he’s okay. But I know different because he has a female friend he calls. He can’t sleep. He’s worried about his safety.”

Odell’s brother Tim graduated from Salisbury State College with a degree in sociology in 1982. Two years later, he took a job with the State of Maryland as a corrections officer. For 20 years, while one son, Odell, served time under the state, another son, Tim, worked for it. This gave Tim a front-row seat for observing how Maryland’s carceral system grew more punitive. Whereas inmates had once done their time and gone to pre-release facilities, now they were staying longer. Requirements for release became more onerous. Meanwhile, the prisons were filling to capacity and beyond. “They just kept overcrowding and overcrowding and not letting people go home,” Tim told me. The prisons began holding two people in cells meant for one. “If you’re in an 8-by-10 space that’s only big enough for one person and now you got two people in there, it’s just more aggravation,” Tim said. “And then they cut out a lot of the college programs that they did have. They cut out the weights being in the yard.”

The overcrowding, the stripping of programs and resources, were part of the national movement toward punishing inmates more harshly and for longer periods. Officially, Maryland has two kinds of life sentences—life with the possibility of parole, and life without. In the 1970s, Maryland’s governor paroled 92 lifers. Parole for lifers declined after Marvin Mandel’s last term ended, in 1979, and then ground to a halt in 1993, when Rodney Stokes—a lifer out on work release—killed his girlfriend and then himself. Parris Glendening, the Democratic governor elected in 1994, declared, “A life sentence means life.” Glendening’s Republican successor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., commuted five lifers’ sentences and granted only a single instance of medical parole.

In 2006, Martin O’Malley (who’s currently vying to be the Democrats’ nominee for president in 2016) defeated Ehrlich to become governor, but he took an even stricter stance on lifers than his predecessor, failing to act on even a single recommendation of the Parole Commission. Recognizing that the system had broken down, the Maryland legislature changed the law in 2011 so that the commission’s recommendations would automatically be carried out if the governor did not reject them within 180 days. This changed almost nothing. After the law’s passage, O’Malley vetoed nearly every recommendation that reached his desk.

This is not sound policy for fighting crime or protecting citizens. In Maryland, the average lifer who has been recommended for but not granted release is 60 years old. These men and women are past the age of “criminal menopause,” as some put it, and most pose no threat to their community. Even so, the Maryland Parole Commission’s recommendation is not easily attained: Between 2006 and 2014, it recommended only about 80 out of more than 2,100 eligible lifers for release. Almost none of those 80 or so men and women, despite meeting a stringent set of requirements, was granted release by the governor. Though Maryland’s Parole Commission still offers recommendations for lifers, they are disregarded. The choice given to judges to levy sentences for life either with or without parole no longer has any meaning.

For more than five years, from February 1988 to June 1993, Odell Newton worked in the community through work release; for part of that period, he was able to visit his relatives through the state’s family-leave policy. Reports from Odell’s former work-release employers are glowing. “His character is above reproach,” one wrote in 1991. Another said: “I consider it a privilege to have Mr. Newton as an employee, and would rehire Odell at any time.” With his family, he would often go out to eat, or have a cookout or a party. Family leave was supposed to be a bridge to Odell’s eventual release. But the program was suspended for lifers in May of 1993, after a convicted murderer fled while visiting his son. The Stokes killing followed just weeks later. After that, parole was effectively taken of the table for all lifers, and Maryland ended work release for them as well. Believing for years that Odell was on his way to coming home, and then seeing the road to freedom snatched away, frustrated the family. “I could see you doing it to people that’s starting out new, and this is a new law you’re putting down,” his sister Jackie told me. But this is “like me buying a house and I have it one price, then when you come in and sign the papers, they’re going, ‘Oh no, I changed my mind, I want $10,000 more for it.’ ”

I asked Odell’s family how they coped with the experience. You just have to pray and keep praying,” his mother told me.

For most of Odell’s time in prison, the power to sign the papers has rested in the hands of Democrats, who in recent decades have taken a line on lifers at least as harsh as any Republican has. “The Glendening administration’s policies, and Gov. Martin O’Malley policies made a paroleable life sentence a ‘non paroleable sentence,’ ” Odell wrote to his lawyer, and that’s not right.”


“Our value system became surviving versus living.”

Born in the late 1950s, Odell Newton was part of the generation that so troubled Moynihan when he wrote his report on “The Negro Family.” But Odell had the very bulwark that Moynihan treasured—a stable family—and it did not save him from incarceration. It would be wrong to conclude from this that family is irrelevant. But families don’t exist independent of their environment. Odell was born in the midst of an era of government-backed housing discrimination. Indeed, Baltimore was a pioneer in this practice—in 1910, the city council had zoned the city by race. “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums,” J. Barry Mahool, Baltimore’s mayor, said. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such explicit racial-zoning schemes unconstitutional, in 1917, the city turned to other means—restrictive covenants, civic associations, and redlining—to keep blacks isolated.


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October 2015