“Tough On Crime” Deepens Mental Health Crisis

Mass incarceration trauma

The bogeyman of “state intrusion” – a phrase usually used as a euphemism for taxation or regulation among advocates of small government – is a popular one. However, it is difficult to understand the full meaning of the phrase until the state intrudes into your home, through your body, and through your children’s bodies. People who have been incarcerated and their families understand this very real encroachment of the state into their personal lives.

In his October, 2015 article, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”, Ta-Nehisi Coates charts the policy history which culminated in today’s mass incarceration crisis. As Coates points out,

“In absolute terms, America’s prison and jail population from 1970 until today has increased sevenfold, from some 300,000 people to 2.2 million.”

This crisis is a financial one and a practical one. By now it is a well-documented fact that the rates at which we incarcerate people have not had any notable effect on crime rates. Yet mass incarceration has been one of the most expensive ventures in the modern history of our country.

It is a human crisis.

Coates correctly points out that there is a causal relationship between the poor material conditions experienced by individuals living in poverty and certain risk factors which lead to criminal behavior. These same individuals often live without access to many of the social services afforded to the well-off, such as healthcare and behavioral services. Moreover, it is clear that poverty and crime have a cyclically causal relationship, which can easily be traced through the history of the many structures of institutionalized racism which, for centuries, have plagued people of color and African-Americans especially.

From a psychological perspective, it is crucial to point out the fact that the experience of poverty drastically increases the likelihood that an individual will struggle with addiction and experience mental health issues, such as PTSD and C-PTSD. Without proper treatment, these issues may lead to unemployment and even homelessness. Among others, Coates identifies these four risk factors – homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, and mental illness – as particularly common in low-income African-American communities, and as common causes of criminal behavior.  He describes it as such:

“High rates of incarceration, single-parent households, dropping out of school, and poverty are not unrelated vectors. Instead, taken together, they constitute what [Harvard sociologist Robert] Sampson calls ‘compounded deprivation’—entire families, entire neighborhoods, deprived in myriad ways, must navigate, all at once, a tangle of interrelated and reinforcing perils.”

Per Coates’ assessment, cases of PTSD  and other mental illnesses which go untreated are often the cause of criminal behavior in low-income communities of color.

Oppression produces and exacerbates trauma and its consequences.

Though  not an excuse for harmful behavior, criminal behavior does not occur as a result of some moral failing on the part of poor people of color. Rather, a lack of services available to address the material conditions which lead to trauma and its ramifications is to blame.

I know firsthand about the traumas that members of vulnerable communities experience. In these communities, PTSD is primarily caused by neglect, prolonged material deprivation, and sexual violence. Moreover, there is a clear overlap between the conditions people of color (especially women of color) experience when they have severely limited access to social services, and the factors which lead to trauma-related conditions. Women of color are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, and sexual trauma is commonly overlooked in areas where incarceration is favored over treatment.

Incarceration only accelerates the poverty-prison pipeline, and repeated trauma further speeds it along. It is especially common for female inmates to be revictimized in prison. The cycles of abuse, violence, and drug dependency (factors which produced criminal behavior in the first place) continue to occur behind bars. A highly punitive and retribution-focused approach to prosecution, especially for nonviolent crimes, is not only draconian but also ineffective. So-called “tough on crime” crackdowns punish the most vulnerable people in our communities, and thereby fuel the system of abuse and revictimization by adding the state as an agent of that abuse yet again, this time in the form of a prison.

There is no documented evidence to support the claim that incarceration is effective in addressing these issues: in fact, it is quite clear that incarceration only exacerbates cycles of poverty and trauma. Moreover, the explosive growth of the prison industry over the last 40-50 years has been tremendously costly to taxpayers who do not benefit from its perpetuation.

In the age of mass incarceration, the state has different functions for different groups of people. The prison-industrial complex produces profit for some. Its price is the capture of black bodies and their forced labor, abuse, and traumatization in prison.

– Tara Taylor

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