Scott Reeder: Why were the folks down the road locked up?
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“Ma’am I’ve got some good news for you. Your grandson is being released from prison.”
I made that phone call about 15 years ago after covering a session of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board and watching the board members vote to release a long-serving inmate.
The elated grandmother dropped the phone receiver and screamed, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” I could hear her feet thumping and relatives hollering with joy. Cheers roared across the phone line.
And then there was silence.
The grandmother came back on the phone and whispered, “Which one of my grandsons is getting out?”
Our society has created a culture of incarceration that permeates impoverished neighborhoods throughout Illinois and the country.
No nation incarcerates more people, or a higher percentage of its citizenry, than the United States of America.
Not China. Not Russia. Not Iran.
The Land of the Free has become the Home of the Incarcerated.
Growing up on a farm in downstate Galesburg, I would look out my bedroom window at night and see the eerie glow of prison lights just down the road.
I wondered why folks there were locked up.
They seemed to come from a world different than my own.
Many were there for drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses.
When it comes to drugs, wealthy and middle-class folks end up in rehab and low–income ones end up doing time.
Middle class people have “youthful indiscretions” while those from poor families have felonies.
It’s part of that pernicious concoction of race, class and hopelessness that perverts our justice system.
The Brookings Institute found that blacks are far more likely to be arrested for selling or possessing drugs than whites, even though whites use drugs at the same rate. And whites are actually more likely to sell drugs.
This mass incarceration for nonviolent offenses doesn’t serve our society well.
It perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
The Illinois Department of Corrections reports that 62 percent of inmates are parents.
Seldom is a family better off with a nonviolent mom or dad is behind bars.
Alternatives to prison must be deployed.
Prisons are taking a devastating toll on our state’s inner cities and escalating the financial burden on taxpayers who are forced to support a system that breeds poverty and destroys families.
Scott Reeder is a reporter and columnist with Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute.
Follow Scott Reeder on Twitter: @scottreeder