Long term prison sentences are being blamed for increased poverty, according to social sciences experts. When convicted criminals are sentenced to longer prison terms, they’re ability to provide for themselves and their families greatly diminishes. While the rate of criminals on the street may be decreasing, longer prison terms mean that many men who are released are not able to adapt to the changing world around them.
Carl Harris can attest to the effects of a long-term prison sentence on poverty. He and his wife, Charlene Hamilton, just bought their first home, and he is working his first job making above minimum wage. He is 47 years old. When Harris was 24, he was sent to prison for dealing drugs — a crime that put him behind bars for 20 years.
He earned $1.15 per hour for his work in prison, which barely covered the bills for phone calls home. Hamilton was left with the couples two daughters and no income. She spent an entire month living in her car, while relatives took in the girls.
After two decades of poverty and making their long-distance marriage work, Harris and Hamilton are finally getting their feet under them. They both have good jobs, their girls have graduated high school and are working. One is in college.
But it took 20 years for this family to finally rebuild after Harris’ poor decision in his early 20s. Was 20 years too long to be punished for his crimes?
Harris was introduced to drug dealing when he was 18. Working at a car-wash, he became fixated with the fancy imported cars that drug dealers drove. He started dealing. While police were never able to bust him for drug dealing, they did arrested him for fighting. He broke into a crack den to retrieve drugs stolen from him by a customer. When he found people using the drug, he “lost it,” and began beating people up. He broke someone’s arm, another got a cut on his leg.
Police slapped him with two counts of assault, each carrying a minimum three-year sentence. Then police added an armed burglary charge — which Harris denies to this day, saying he never broke into the New York apartment — which upped his sentence to 15 to 45 years.
While Harris and his wife admit that a prison sentence was fair — and even assert that Harris needed the time in prison to “grow up” and learn the error of his ways — they maintain that a 15 to 45 year sentence was too long.
Social sciences experts agree, stating that long-term prison terms are linked to increased poverty.
While heavier prison terms was initially believed to help people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime, it is not believed that the cost of incarceration far outweighs the benefits.
The prison rate in America is the world’s highest, and some are questioning if some crimes are punished too harshly — and taking resources from crimes that deserve harsher sentences. The consequences of long prison terms are many.
For African-American men in their 20s and 30s, the incarceration rate nationwide is so high that men are more likely to be in prison than to have a job.
Social scientists now note that when the incarceration rate in a country rises, there is also a rise in sexually transmitted diseases. There is also increased risk of AIDS and high-risk sexual behavior, potentially because the current prison rate in cities like Washington, D.C. lowers the male to female ratio. With 6 men to every 10 women, men are more likely to have multiple sex partners, and women are less likely to be picky about who they have a relationship with.
Sociologists have also linked a parents’ incarceration to violence in children, and with child poverty and juvenile delinquency. A parent in prison causes “economic and emotional strains” on families.
While some families benefit from a violent of abusive parents being incarcerated, Yale sociologists have found that children are generally more likely to suffer academically and socially after the incarceration of a parent. Christopher Wildeman found that boys left without fathers are more physically aggressive, and spouses of prisoners become more depressed.
The high school graduate rate drops in children of parents who are in jail.
“Education, income, housing, health — incarceration affects everyone and everything in the nation’s low-income neighborhoods,” said Megan Comfort, a sociologist at the nonprofit research organization RTI International. Comfort analyzes what she calls the “secondary imprisonment” of inmates’ families.
When Harris was released from prison, his daughters had to teach him how to use a cell phone. The only job he could get with his prison record was sorting laundry at $8.25 per hour. It has taken years for the couple to rise above the poverty line. Now, in their 40s, they feel they are starting their live together.
“It’s like our life is finally beginning,” Ms. Hamilton said. “If he hadn’t been away so long, we could own a house by now. We would probably have more kids. I try not to think about all the things we lost.”
“If I hadn’t been locked up, I probably would have ended up getting killed on the streets,” Harris said of his time behind bars.
“Prison was good for him in some ways,” Hamilton agreed. “He finally grew up there. He’s a man now.”
But, the couple says 20 years was too long.
“They overdid it,” she said. “It didn’t have to take that long at all.”
Do you think that an increase in prison terms has an effect on poverty?