Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Offering an Alternative Paradigm: Young American American Men and the Prison System

I scheduled this post to run later in the week; however, I thought it would be a logical follow-up to the conversation on yesterday. And thank you to those who happened by and thank you to those who contributed to the conversation.

On Friday, November 27, 1989, the day after Thanksgiving, a police officer from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office came to my home, and in front of my children and wife, he arrested me in a case of mistaken identity.

Ironically, the white arresting officer recognized it to be a case of mistaken identity, but the African American sergeant who arrived on the scene shortly after simply looked at me, looked at my family, looked at my home and neighborhood, and then with an unmistaken look of contempt on his face, told the white officer to take me in anyway. The white officer protested, but the African American sergeant just sneered and told him we would work it out at the station.

So, I was taken down to the city jail. I was booked. I was fingerprinted. I was photographed. And for the next twelve hours, I sat in a cell awaiting bail to be set.

When my wife picked me up from the station, she was hoarse from having yelled and screamed for twelve hours straight in the face of anyone and everyone at the city jail. But I was calm, too calm for her. So, she demanded to know why I was not angrier, why I was not absolutely infuriated at my treatment. I tried to explain it to her; I tried to articulate my emotions, but she could not be made to understand.

In a word, I felt relieved. Not relieved to have finally made it out of jail, but finally relieved to have made it into jail. You see, by the time I was arrested, I had witnessed so many young black men go to jail, and I had worked with so many young black men who, despite my and others’ greatest efforts, ended up in jail, that I actually began wondering why I was yet to go to jail.

The more I achieved, the more I realized some measure of success, the more apprehensive I got. The more frightened I became. And it all didn’t make sense because when I was growing up, prison, or as my grandmother called it—the pen, was frowned on. It was shameful. If a family member happened to go to “the pen,” then the family lied and said he was in East St. Louis or something. If he was from East St. Louis, then the family lied and said he was down South.

But my point is this: Despite my upbringing, despite my education, despite my achievements, if all that was going on around me, if all I witnessed could work to convince me that going to jail was inevitable as a young black man, what must those young African American men still stuck in inner-city, crime infested neighborhoods, those still under the thumb of poverty, feel. What do they believe their life prospects to be?

It appears to me that incarceration or having family members incarcerated has become an all too familiar part of African American lives. I read somewhere that for young African American males, going to jail has become almost a rite of passage. And remnants of prison culture are creeping into the mainstream culture, for instance the sagging pants and tattoos.

But we all know how ruinous a prison record can be, what an absolutely devastating effect a prison record can have on a young person’s future.

But the challenge then becomes to counter this normalization of deviancy with another paradigm. For all those images of deviancy we must counter with images of success and acheivement. I believe that those of us who have managed to make it out, those of us who have managed to achieve some measure of success, have an unequivocal responsibility to return and serve as role models, as mentors, for those still looking for a way out.

Have you had an experience similar to mine? What do you think can be done to reduce the number of young African American men entering the prison system?

Additional web resource: Genpop.org


Denisha said...

Speaking a female, I think we do need more men who have made it out to come back and speak/mentor/Big Brother some of the young men still in the 'hood. I go to church in the 'hood I was raised but I live further north so my boys won't have to deal with the streets in that way. It's amazing how the inner-city kids see their world & opportunities compared to how much is really available to them. They get impressed with the minor things whichs is pretty sad.

But, when you attempt to take them out from their 'hood, it's scary for them to leave what they know. My brother is a teen and he has never been arrested but I remember this one situation where he actually though about buying a gun to handle a dispute he was having. That never happened because I told him how stupid that was and I'd get to him before the police but it goes to show the mindset he'd accepted as the norm.

They think nothing of it. No one tells them it's abnormal. And those who know better don't want to go back out of fear. I rarely go back because those kids are hostile....in all honesty! My safety or giving back? It's a difficult question to answer sometimes but someone did it for me which is how I knew I needed to get out.

Charles J said...


What do you think can be done to reduce the number of young African American men entering the prison system?

Maz we need a support system for young Black men. I agree with you there is no Rite of Passage for men period in the US, but there are none for a young Black man in the US. Our community has been so dismantled. Desegregation allowed the Black community to move up and out which was a good and bad thing. We Blacks left our communities. The community was our pillar and strength. We had doctors, lawyers, nurses, trash collectors, etc all in one place with the drug dealer and prostitute. There were models in the community to show brothers what to do and someone imitate. Now poverty and the poor mindset has taken over the Black community and many young Black men only see 3 ways out of the hood (1) drugs,(2) sports or (3) rapping.

If we do not stregthen our community young black men will continue to go down this rugged road. We also have to hold the education system to higher standards. School systems in inner cities are breeding grounds for failure. If we hold the schools to better facilities and books like our suburban counterparts we would have more successful students and our graduation rates will go up.
As a young black male I need to be engaged in education and in life period and I had teachers in the schools that I went to, which propelled me to do well, but I had the privelege of private schools.

We are only failing ourselves. It's not enough that the young Black man in your household is doing well, but we need to worry about the young men who are outside our homes to better our entire community.

uglyblackjohn said...

IMO- All of our institutions have become hustles.
The Black Church, NAACP, Urban League, 100 Black Men, ect. have members that are more concerned with their status in the white comunity than they are with their effectiveness within the Black.

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