elda Morgan had a happy life in Washington, D.C. She was married, had three children and had a wonderful husband who allowed her to stay home with the children. It was a dream come true until that knock on the door.
“It was a Saturday morning. I’ll never forget it. It was the police. They had a warrant for my husband’s arrest. He went peacefully and that was as shocking as the police at my door. He was an accountant and made bad decisions with someone else’s money,” she told The Final Call.
“He got five to 10 years for embezzlement. It was the worst times of our lives. I was a stay-at-home mom, happy to take my children back and forth to school. My husband’s incarceration dramatically reduced our income. I had to get a job. We had to move from our house into an apartment. I had to get social services, food from the church down the street and clothes from the thrift store.”
One of the rarely considered horrors of mass incarceration is how it strips wealth from already economically marginalized families and widens the racial wealth gap. The United States has more people locked up per capita than most countries in the world, according to the Sentencing Project. Mass incarceration creates financial burdens on families.
A recent report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) documented a link between criminal-justice interactions and household wealth. The report found:
· Households with a currently or previously incarcerated family member have about 50 percent less wealth than households not affected by incarceration, on average.
· Households with criminal legal interactions face more obstacles to saving and end up deeper in debt.
· Households affected by incarceration have fewer chances for longer-term wealth building.
“America’s failed experiment with mass incarceration and overcriminalization has now bared long-term consequences detrimental to the economy as a whole, as it has become a significant driver of poverty and racial equality,” said Akua Amaning, director of Criminal Justice Reform at CAP.
“There is not just a single fix. In order to dramatically reduce the footprint of mass incarceration, begin to close America’s racial wealth gap and reform the nation’s broken criminal legal system, a comprehensive set of policy changes must be embraced by policymakers and actors in the criminal justice system.”
Finding employment opportunities when released from incarceration is also a challenge. Joel Caston went to jail for murder when he was 18. He was incarcerated for 27 years and underwent a transformation. He changed his life, became a mentor and was educated. When he was released, he looked forward to starting over.
“I am a middle-aged guy. I’m a dad, I’m a grandfather—I have two grandchildren. I have gray hair at my temples. I don’t think like that 18-year-old guy that once had a mindset that I completely reject. I have changed. I am deeply remorseful. … I have a proven track record of rehabilitation and demonstrated remorse. Individuals like myself, they deserve an opportunity to present a colorful argument of why they deserve their freedom,” he said when he was released.
However, the opportunity to begin anew is easier said than done.
“A criminal history prevents an individual from advancing forward in the workspace, in the labor market. You’re relegated to blue-collar work that doesn’t require you to have any specialized skills,” Mr. Caston, now a D.C. mentor, author and activist, told The Final Call. “Mass incarceration has created a caste system that is a pipeline for manual labor. I am not demeaning or speaking ill about blue-collar workers. However, we can’t venture into new dimensions,” he explained.
“We have to answer, ‘have you ever been convicted of a felony’? Once you say ‘yes,’ they say, ‘provide information.’ Whatever you provide, they say, ‘give us explanation.’ When you give an explanation, they say, ‘we can’t hire you.’”
The Prison Policy Initiative is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that produces cutting–edge research to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization. Their research found that formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27 percent—higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.
“Our estimate of the unemployment rate establishes that formerly incarcerated people want to work, but face structural barriers to securing employment, particularly within the period immediately following release. For those who are Black or Hispanic—especially women— status as ‘formerly incarcerated’ reduces their employment chances even more,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
“This perpetual labor market punishment creates a counterproductive system of release and poverty, hurting everyone involved: employers, the taxpayers, and certainly formerly incarcerated people looking to break the cycle.”
The report explained that incarceration has long-term, far-reaching negative consequences for the entire household’s chances at building wealth. Stable employment with opportunities for upward mobility makes all the difference in families’ experiences.
The Papillion Foundation was formed in direct response to the mass incarceration of millions of men and women in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Their research found that ex-offenders face:
* states that allow employers to terminate employment of
employees found to have had a prior conviction;
* states that allow employers to deny jobs to people who were simply arrested but never convicted;
* states that allow employers to deny jobs to anyone with a criminal record, regardless of how long ago or the individual’s work history and personal circumstances;
* states that ban some or all people with convictions from being eligible for federally funded public assistance and food stamps.
According to CAP, an estimated 70 million to 100 million Americans—roughly one in three U.S. adults—have an incarceration, conviction, or arrest record, which is a direct consequence of decades of mass incarceration and overcriminalization. Their analysis found that nearly half of the U.S. children now have at least one parent with such a record.
The CAP report concluded that America’s failed criminal legal policies disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic individuals, families, and communities. Mass incarceration has become an underappreciated driver of the racial wealth gap in America.
Before Chicago’s Cedric 3X Cal was incarcerated, he liked numbers and money. He wanted to be an accountant. Incarceration changed that. When he was released in 2020 after 28 years, finding a job was difficult.
“For a year straight, I was getting hired and fired,” he told The Final Call. “Every time they did a background check. I got fired. I would do good on the next interview and get hired. Days later, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t use you.’”
“To even do Door Dash I had to use an agency because you can’t have a problematic background to do Door Dash or Uber, none of that stuff. I used an agency to get a job delivering. I delivered to a warehouse and they hired me. I’ve been working there for two years.”
Mr. Cal is now married with a family. Employment is crucial. Since being hired, he learned valuable skills and became a certified welder. Despite the challenges, he continues to persevere.
The Nation of Islam’s Prison Reform Ministry has a documented history of redeeming and teaching incarcerated individuals through the Teachings of the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad and transforming them into model inmates and productive citizens upon their release.
The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan has pointed out that America’s prisons are not meant to reform but that the proven track record of the NOI Prison Reform Ministry can help in rehabilitating and training those who were incarcerated so they can earn a living and support their families which greatly reduces the problem of recidivism.
“When you look at what the Muslims are doing with our prison program, in the midst of you, here again you see a torchlight,” Minister Farrakhan wrote in his book, “A Torchlight for America.”
“Muslims are relatively crime free, and our rate of recidivism is lower than in the main. We respect law and order. Since so many of the inmates are our people, why not let us reform them and help to save some of the taxpayer’s money. Why not let us handle the inmates and lessen the taxpayer’s burden. We can handle the inmates for less than what America is paying now. And better, we can reform our people and make them productive members of society,” he wrote.
But the challenges remain for those who genuinely desire to become assets to their families and communities upon release.
The Center for American Progress report found that Black and Hispanic households with a currently or previously incarcerated family member experience greater financial insecurity than White households affected by incarceration. For example, 29.2 percent of Black households and 26.3 percent of Hispanic households with a currently or previously incarcerated family member could not pay all their bills in 2019. For their White counterparts, the share was 19.1 percent.
“Even when my husband came home, he couldn’t get a job as an accountant,” Mrs. Morgan said. “We suffered for a long time until I could get a better job. Everywhere he went, it was one no after another. They say you paid your debt to society but you keep paying and paying.”
Mr. Caston believes the answer to these problems is expungement.
“We need to have records sealed and criminal histories expunged for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated (individuals) to advance forward. Otherwise, we are literally in the caste system mass incarceration has created,” he said.
The American Bar Association found that nearly nine in 10 employers, four in five landlords, and three in five colleges use background checks to screen for applicants’ criminal records, and one study found that more than 45,000 federal and state statutes and regulations impose disqualifications or disadvantages on individuals with a conviction.
Expungement removes arrests and/or convictions from a person’s criminal record entirely as if they never happened. Even a court or prosecutor cannot view a person’s expunged record. However, sealing a person’s criminal record, in contrast, removes it from public view, but it can still be accessed through a court order.
A growing number of states are adopting “clean slate” laws to automatically expunge and seal records. This is being done due to the many barriers that prevent eligible individuals from clearing their records when filing a petition is required. Ten states including California, New York and Pennsylvania have clean slate legislation that creates an automatic and automated process for expunging or sealing certain eligible criminal records.
Final Call staff contributed to this report.