Prison Addiction

Why mass incarceration policies must change

When I first returned to Baltimore in 2005, after working for nearly 10 years in the Holy Land, I spent some time just driving around the city to get reacquainted with it. I was immediately struck by the number of men, mostly young African-Americans, congregating on street corners or porch stoops in the middle of the day, a time when most people are at work. At that time, Baltimore City’s unemployment rate was around 7 percent, not nearly as high as the 12 percent it would reach in 2010 or even the 7.8 percent reported in April 2014. And yet, even then, there was a pervasive sense of hopelessness and lost opportunity in those faces of men who had the odds so badly stacked against them—poverty, poor education, lack of employment, drug addictions and drug-related crime in their neighborhoods, and friends and family members who had been shot or imprisoned. For them to envision a brighter future, to see their way to a safer, more stable life, was nearly impossible.

Soon I would become aware of how our system of sentencing and incarceration contributes to all of this and helps to create a class of citizens who have little hope of ever advancing beyond their dreadful way of life.

While the issues of urban poverty and crime in the United States are complex, many people are starting to understand that there is one facet that is recognizable and that has reached epic proportions, so much so that workers in the field are labeling it a public health crisis: the mass incarceration of staggering numbers of people—primarily young African-American and Latino men—for nonviolent, mostly drug-related offenses.

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