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50 Years Of Mass Incarceration Has Devastated American Society

Above photo: Inmate at the South Bay House of Correction joins Ferguson grand jury protestors outside with their hands-up gestures as they protest on the entrance road to I-93 near Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, Mass. Nov. 25, 2014. John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

And Countless Lives

“The social, moral, and fiscal costs associated with the large-scale, decades-long investment in mass imprisonment,” The Sentencing Project notes, “cannot be justified by any evidence of its effectiveness.”

Fifty years ago, the United States embarked on a path of mass incarceration that has led to a staggering increase in the prison population. Today, almost 2 million individuals—disproportionately Black Americans—are incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails. The prison population has grown 500% since 1973, the year America began to sharply increase its prison population. “The social, moral, and fiscal costs associated with the large-scale, decades-long investment in mass imprisonment,” The Sentencing Project notes, “cannot be justified by any evidence of its effectiveness. Misguided changes in sentencing law and policy—not crime—account for the majority of the increase in correctional supervision.” The Sentencing Project and a coalition of advocates, experts, and partners are launching a public education campaign, “50 Years and a Wake Up: Ending The Mass Incarceration Crisis In America,” to raise awareness about the dire state of the US criminal legal system and the devastating impact of incarceration on communities and families, and to propose more effective crime prevention strategies for our country. Liz Komar, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn and now the sentencing reform counsel at The Sentencing Project, joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss the monstrous realities of the US system of mass incarceration.


The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Chris Hedges: 50 years ago, the United States embarked on a path of mass incarceration that has led to a staggering increase in the prison population. Today, almost 2 million individuals, disproportionately Black Americans are incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails. The prison population has grown 500% since 1973, the year America began to sharply increase its prison population.

“The social, moral, and physical costs associated with a large-scale, decades long investment in mass incarceration,” The Sentencing Project notes, “Cannot be justified by any evidence of its effectiveness. Misguided changes in sentencing law and policy, not crime, account for the majority of the increase in correctional supervision. Mass incarceration instigates poor, physical, psychological, and economic outcomes for the people who experience imprisonment for their families, as well as for the broader community. Imprisonment leads to declining prospects for employment and results in lower earnings in the longer term. Food insecurity, housing instability, and reliance on public assistance are also associated with prior imprisonment.”

The Sentencing Project and a coalition of advocates, experts, and partners are launching a public education campaign 50 Years and a Wake Up: Ending The Mass Incarceration Crisis In America. The campaign raises awareness about the dire state of the criminal legal system in the country, the devastating impact of incarceration on communities and families, and proposes more effective crime prevention strategies for our country.

The title for this campaign was borne out of a colloquial phrase that incarcerated people sometimes use to describe the life of their sentence, plus one day. I have 20 years and a wake up.

It also serves as a double entendre calling for our country to wake up to the harsh and dangerous realities of mass incarceration in the United States. Joining me to discuss our system of mass incarceration, where we hold nearly 25% of the world’s prison population, although we are less than 5% of the global population, is Liz Komar, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, and the Sentencing Reform Counsel at The Sentencing Project.

So we do have a crisis, as I told you before we went on. I’ve taught in the prison system now for over a decade. And it exploded in particularly under a Democratic administration, the Clinton administration.

Let’s talk a little bit about how we got to where we are. And you as a former attorney, I wondered if you could also talk about plea deals, because almost everyone is coerced into accept. Very few people get jury trials, I think about 6% or something. So talk about the antecedents to this and what it’s created.

Liz Komar: Sure, Chris. And first, thanks so much for having me and thanks so much to your listeners and viewers for their interest in this topic. Many factors have contributed to our path to mass incarceration. Changes in sentencing practices over the last 50 years have been a significant contributor, and that includes things like the increase of mandatory minimum sentences, our war on drugs, racially motivated sentencing policies. For instance, the way that we punish crack cocaine trafficking much more harshly than powder cocaine trafficking.

And then also, we can’t talk about how we came to have mass incarceration without talking about what it came from. And in many ways, replaced, which is slavery and the Jim Crow era, that there’s a direct through line between those. And mass incarceration is also the result of not having any other sort of social safety net in the United States. It is our social safety net.

And so we’ve created areas of concentrated poverty and disadvantage because of our history of racial injustice. And then we have closely policed and criminalized those same communities. And the result is a sprawling prison industrial complex, and also that the harm is concentrated on communities of color.

And I know you asked me to also address plea bargaining, and I think the rate at which people accept plea bargains varies by state. In the federal system, it’s particularly high, about 90%. And a lot of the reason behind that is the trial penalty, that people typically face a significantly higher sentence if they proceed to trial and are convicted. That’s a system that is fairly unique to the United States. And as you mentioned, highly coercive.

Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about the explosion of the prison population, why and how that happened. It was largely a Democratic project.

Liz Komar: The explosion of the prison system had many contributing factors. We wrote a report earlier this year called Counting Down: Paths to a 20-Year Maximum Prison Sentence, and it talks about ways that we could change criminal laws to begin to whittle away at the extreme sentences that have played a significant role in creating mass incarceration. And it addresses multiple things like America’s love for consecutive sentencing. So if someone commits two crimes, running those sentences back to back. It includes the rise of things like habitual offender laws, so laws which punish people more harshly for their second, third, fourth offense. The three strikes law would be the most severe example of that.

And then we also talk about the importance of ending life without parole and virtual life sentences, sentences that almost no one will survive. That’s death by incarceration. And our love for life imprisonment dramatically accelerated over the last 50 years. And so we have to unwind those specific sentencing structures to begin to unwind mass incarceration. And you’ll notice that I’m not talking about low level drug offenses. We shouldn’t criminalize those. They’re an important contributor to jail churn, which it’s bad if people are frequently coming into contact with the criminal legal system. But those don’t cause extreme sentences, and so it’s important that we think beyond them in our push for reform.

Chris Hedges: In your report, you write one in seven people in prison in the country is serving a life sentence. Is that a life sentence, or then there are also more who are serving because the sentences are so long, life plus 50 years? Does that percentage, or the number of people who are serving life sentences increase because they have de facto life sentences?

Liz Komar: I believe that number includes de facto life and de jure life. So people who are serving what we would call virtual life, a sentence you can’t survive, and then also life and life without the parole.

Chris Hedges: You note in the report, first of all, life sentences are disproportionately served by people of color. More than half of life without parole, the most extreme category are Black. And then you go on that they are authorized for persons who were often not directly involved in the underlying crime, such as in the case of felony murder laws.

In these scenarios, an individual may not have even been present when a murder happened, but is held equally culpable because of their participation in an underlying felony. I find this in prison, that people who actually not pulled the trigger, not even had the weapon, nevertheless are serving for aggravated murder or whatever the charge is. So explain how that works.

Liz Komar: Sure. So the concept of felony murder is that if you are arrested for committing a certain specified felony… It’s usually felonies that might in some cases have an element of violence. So burglary, robbery, certain sexual offenses, that if someone dies in the course of you committing that offense, even if it was your co-defendant who pulled the trigger and you had no idea they had a gun, you are liable for that death.

And it’s not uncommon to see people, as you mentioned, sentenced to life without parole for felony murder. I’ve been doing some recent work in Louisiana, and that is the mandatory sentence there for felony murder.

And the reality of felony murder convictions is that they disproportionately impact young men and women. And that’s because women may get wrapped up in an offense being committed by a significant other. They may be coerced into committing an offense with a significant other. And with young people, it’s because we know that young people commit crime in groups, because young people do many things in groups.

And then prosecutors like to use felony murder charges if they have a group of young people. They don’t know who pulled the trigger, but they want to get a murder penalty for someone. And so everyone gets charged with felony murder, and then probably everybody pleads so that they’re not going to trial and facing potentially a life without parole sentence.

And so that’s one of the challenges in getting rid of felony murder laws is that even though I think they strike almost everyone as deeply unfair once you look at the facts of how they’re actually used, they’re a very popular tool for prosecutors.

Chris Hedges: I taught a student. He had just turned 18. He was sitting in a car listening to a 50 Cent song. Two older men in their twenties went into a bodega to rob it. They had a gun, the owner reached for a gun, they shot and killed the owner, they ran back to the car, and he ended up serving even though he didn’t even know what was going on. He served 18 years in prison.

Liz Komar: I wish I could say that’s a rare story, but it’s certainly not.

Chris Hedges: I want to talk about aging out. And statistically, we know in this report that you put out, you talk about imposing a 20-year mandatory sentence, no matter the crime. Which is by the way in most industrialized countries, what you would serve. But aging out, you said is evident across hundreds of empirical studies, reflects the fact that people are most at risk for committing crime in their late teenage years, their mid or late twenties. And after this age, the proclivity toward community committing more crime declines rapidly.

I remember being in the supermax prison in Trenton a few days before Christmas. It’s an image I’ll never forget coming out of a classroom, and I walked down a corridor, and it was elderly prisoners pushing wheelchairs of other elderly prisoners who couldn’t even walk.

Liz Komar: Yeah, that’s an image that we need to erase from American prisons. We need to create more second chances, especially for elderly individuals behind bars. And so in terms of aging out, the research is abundantly clear. We know as you mentioned, that as people get older, they can naturally mature out of crime in most circumstances. And that’s because of what we call desistance factors.

So things like having a family, having a full-time job, having ties to the community, those are all things that make people naturally inclined to offend less. And also, people’s brains fully develop once they hit about 25, 26. We are neurologically capable of making better decisions. When people are teenagers or in their early twenties, which is neurologically pretty much the same as just being an old teenager, people are more susceptible to peer pressure. They have a harder time thinking about the future. They’re more likely to engage in a rash and impulsive decision. And that can mean that a disagreement in a bar turns into a murder conviction.

And so that’s why even the Supreme Court has recognized that at least with minors, we need to treat youth differently because their brains are different. And so we can carry through that same principle when we look at sentencing solutions to reduce our system of over-incarceration and say, hey, many people in prison have aged out of crime. We know that criminal careers are very short, four to 16 years. There’s lots of evidence that tells us it’s safe to give people a second chance and bring them home.

Chris Hedges: So the raison d’etre behind this very draconian form of sentencing, which was embraced by Joe Biden, he was one of the architects of the omnibus crime bill, was that they were sending a message. And yet again, I think you punch holes in that as a fallacy explained.

Liz Komar: Sure, absolutely. So we know that increases in already long prison sentences, say increasing it from 20 years to life, don’t have a material deterrent effect on crime. The hope of people who impose those significantly longer sentences is that when people are about to commit an offense, they’ll say, “Oh wait, last year it was 20 years I could have gone to prison for, but now I could go away to prison for life. I’m not going to do this impulsive violent thing.”

And I think you can hear the absurdity in that scenario as I say it, that that’s just not how people think about crime. That in reality, the thing that deters crime is the certainty of punishment rather than the severity. So that means the likelihood that you’ll be caught, not the likelihood that you’ll be facing an extremely severe punishment. And I don’t even know that human brains can comprehend how much harsher 20 years is from a life sentence in that moment before acting. And part of the political backstory behind that increase is the rise in truth in sentencing laws.

So we used to have a more robust parole system in many states in the United States. So if you had a life sentence, that might not mean that you get out when you’re 70, which is often what it can mean now. It would mean you would do closer to 20, 25 years, and then return to the community. And that was more closely aligned with the reality of research. And unfortunately, we’ve moved away from that for mostly political reasons.

Chris Hedges: Well, you’re right that politicians, the parole system virtually shut down in essence. And the reason is politicians don’t want to have that rare case where somebody is released, and commits a crime, and they bear the political consequence.

It’s also a bizarre parole system. I teach in the prison system in New Jersey, and you go before a panel of two from the parole board who are appointed by the governor. I mean the last governor, Chris Christie appointed his driver. These people, they don’t have degrees in criminology. They’re certainly not criminal defense attorneys. And it’s completely opaque. You don’t know why you’re rejected for parole. You have to express remorse, even if you didn’t commit the crime.

Let’s talk a little bit about the parole system, because it’s seized up, even for people who become eligible for parole. And in your report, you feel that after a decade, everyone should be eligible for parole. And I agree, of course.

But let’s talk about the collapse of the parole system because… And the other point I’d like you to address I found in the prison is that people who are not well-educated, or perhaps have learning disabilities, or whatever, mentally challenged, they can’t navigate the parole board at all because it’s designed to trip them up. And so that, I find a kind of unacknowledged tragedy that if you’re articulate, and the students I teach go through the college program, they can get through that parole labyrinth or trap. But the uneducated or people who are mentally disabled, they can’t get through it.

Liz Komar: Yeah. First I want to clarify one thing, which is that rather than everyone being parole eligible after 10 years, we also believe everyone should be eligible for a judicial second look after 10 years. So the opportunity to go before a judge and present the ways that you’ve changed, programs you’ve done, to have a discussion about the likelihood of how safe it would be to return to the community. And that’s more robust than parole, since parole is more of a rubber-stamping institution that doesn’t have the same necessarily due process protections as a sentencing hearing. So I wanted to add that. And to talk about the collapse of the parole system, I think it’s helpful to talk about an example at the federal level.

So the federal court system used to have parole prior to the creation of the federal sentencing guidelines. So for people who were convicted of offenses that occurred prior to 1987, they were under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Parole Commission if they were sentenced to a sentence that was parole eligible. Many were sentenced to life without parole.

And what happened there is that the U.S. Parole Commission became like a zombie agency that continues to exist. It’s reauthorized every year, because this population of folks who have now all been in prison for more than 30 years, who have a median age over 35, who were accidentally left out of the First Step Act, and they continue to rarely grant parole.

Meanwhile, this group of individuals who were convicted of crimes that occurred prior to the guidelines who generally refer to themselves as old law prisoners, the majority of them who remain in federal facilities were convicted of life without parole. And they don’t even have the option of going before the dysfunctional parole commission. They don’t have the option of compassionate release, because they were left out of the First Step Act, and many of them are serving sentences far longer than they would receive today. And so they’re just a shining example of the incredibly vulnerable, elderly, ill number of individuals who remain behind bars in the United States who need some sort of mechanism to return to the communities, but right now just don’t have a legal avenue.

Chris Hedges:

We also talk about how parole eligible life sentence in states Tennessee, they keep jacking up the number of years that you have to serve. It starts at 25, and the state extended the minimum time on life to 30. So they’ve kept pushing up the sentences. And this means they’re not going to necessarily even be released. They just can’t go before the parole board.

I had a student who was charged as an adult when he was 14 in Camden, New Jersey. Actually, both his parents were dead. He was homeless, living in an abandoned building, and he wasn’t eligible to go before the parole until he was 70 years old. And because of Miller and because he was sentenced as a juvenile, he did get a re-sentencing hearing because of the Supreme Court decision. But the sentences themselves have been pushed up.

Liz Komar: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. It’s been a legislative trend over the past 50 years, especially during the ’80s and ’90s, that classic era of the war on drugs, tough on crime, truth in sentencing. That’s when we began to see parole eligibility dates get later and later. And it’s not rooted in any evidence. It’s rooted in electoral politics.

Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about re-offending rates. And you from statistics point out that people who are released from prison after long periods of confinement, even for serious crimes such as murder, have quite low re-offending rates.

The likelihood of committing a second murder after imprisonment for a first is nearly zero. The likelihood of committing any violent crime after imprisonment for murder is also minimal.

And I just want to throw in there that prison education programs practically obliterate. I mean, we’ve had 189 students graduate from the New Jersey prison system with BAs from Rutgers. We’ve had one go back to prison. That’s less than 1%.

Liz Komar: Yeah. There’s a group of people who kind of demonstrate this lesson very clearly. In 2012, there was a Maryland court case called Unger that allowed a group of about 200 people serving life sentences in Maryland to be released from prison because they got to bypass some roadblocks in the state’s parole process.

And so we have this group of 200 people who served life, who are released from prison that we can look to, for an indication of what would it look like to give second chances to folks with these kinds of serious records and convictions. And only five have returned to prison for a violation of parole rules, which is generally the more challenging thing, or a new crime. And that’s well below the state’s overall recidivism rate.

And if I had a picture to hold up, I would, and it would show you that they’re mostly men, they’re very elderly, and they’re almost all Black. And that’s the reality too, of many of the people who are elderly and serving extreme sentences in the U.S., that it’s a racial justice issue to talk about how can we give these folks an opportunity to potentially come home.

Chris Hedges: One of the things you highlight is that it doesn’t matter often when you go before parole boards, what you’ve accomplished within prison in terms of education. It doesn’t matter that you have a virtually clean disciplinary record. You don’t have what they call a lot of charges. You write the original crime of conviction often overrides these factors, and that’s exactly right. But explain how that works.

Liz Komar: Sure, absolutely. So it’s often a factor that is written into perhaps parole rules, or even in the context in resentencing into a statute is the nature of the offense, that the parole board or a judge, whoever’s making the decision, will look to that and just essentially say, “Crime was too bad,” whether on its face just because it was a homicide, or because of the specific facts involved.

And that really fails to account for often the 30, 40 years that have passed since that moment, and all the ways that that individual has changed. But also, it fails to account for everything that brought that person to that moment.

And I don’t ever want to minimize the seriousness of violent crime and the toll that it takes on survivors and their families. Survivors deserve more justice than they get, but we often fail to account for the fact that people who commit harm more often than not have experienced very serious harm themselves, and that should be taken into account in their sentencing.

Chris Hedges: One of the things just before we get off parole is that the version of events about that particular crime may be false. You may not even have committed the crime. But if you attempt to rectify the official record of the crime, you are automatically denied parole. So I have had students go in, and they actually have to lie about their own crime because they have to stick to completely what they’ve been charged with, what the court record has said they did.

Liz Komar: Sure. Yeah. This is a challenge that we face and we think about as we work with advocates in states that are exploring second look legislation. It’s really important as we think about how to put together these statutes that allow people to go before a judge, that ideally remorse shouldn’t be a factor that’s required.

Because it’s not consistent, as you’ve said, with cases in which someone was perhaps wrongfully convicted, or where perhaps the facts of what actually occurred are radically different from what’s in the court record. We should assess people where they are today for who they are today.

Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about monetary sanctions. Most people, perhaps who haven’t been convicted of a serious crime, don’t realize that when you’re sentenced, you are given all sorts of fines. You earn in New Jersey, $28 a month. They will take one or $2 out. You can accrue fines while you’re in prison and charges. For instance, visiting a relative who’s dying or going to a funeral. You have to pay for the corrections officers over time, run hundreds of dollars. So you get large numbers of people coming out of prison who actually owe a lot of money, and this just cripples their ability to start again or reenter society. And you address that. Can you talk about it?

Liz Komar: Sure, absolutely. So I want to preface this by saying that we should make victims and survivors of crime whole, but we shouldn’t do it necessarily in a way that imposes that burden on individuals who are facing the challenge of re-entering the community after a long sentence. And we also shouldn’t impose it on those individuals’ families, who had generally have already been through perhaps decades of paying very high costs to help their loved one behind bars survive, and to also address restitution.

So when someone reenters the community, if we were serious about safety, we would remove every barrier possible. We would make it so that they have the money to survive, to pay for housing, for it to be safe, secure, decent housing, to pay for the medical care they need, ideally provide more of that, provide them with case management, make sure they have the training that they need.

And instead, what we do is we leave people with a large amount of debt when they leave prison frequently. Oftentimes, they don’t have the vital documents they even need to get an ID. We have all sorts of barriers to reentry, like licensing restrictions, employers who rely too much on criminal records, all sorts of barriers to housing.

And so instead, when people come home from prison, instead of encountering a net of support that ensures they don’t go back, they encounter a razor’s edge that they have to walk down in order to stay in the community.

And it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make sense for public safety, and it doesn’t make sense in terms of if we say that person has already served their sentence, why are we continuing to punish them?

Chris Hedges: Well, they also get out. And if they’ve had traffic tickets or anything else that haven’t been paid when they went in perhaps a few decades ago, that has accrued interest, child support payments. And so they not only come out in debt, but they come out and they can’t move, because they have to make payments of thousands of dollars even to get a driver’s license. And these are the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable. And they can’t get public housing, they can’t get public support. And if they can’t make those payments, then a warrant goes out for their arrest and they go back into prison.

Liz Komar: Yeah, I would really refer folks to the Fines and Fees Justice Center who do incredible work on this topic. And particularly, the issue that you pointed to around driver’s licenses, it’s very easy if you don’t pay your fines that you may accrue, which are very easy to rack up often in a city, if you park wrong and things like that. Very quickly, your license can be suspended. And then driving on a suspended license very often results in criminal charges.

And so there’s been a move amongst some prosecutors who are thinking about how to not criminalize poverty as much to stop prosecuting those cases. But unfortunately, that’s still rare. As you mentioned, it’s so much harder when someone encounters a trap like that in reentry.

Chris Hedges: I want to talk about prison labor. Most people don’t understand the extent to which prisoners, first of all, almost all work. They maintain the prison, they run… I pass the prisoners, the barber shop for the corrections officers with the prisoners in their smocks. They cook the food in the officer’s dining room. They cook the food for the rest of the prison population. Incarcerated workers produce more than $2 billion worth of goods each year, over $9 billion a year in services for the maintenance of the prison, the prisons where they are warehoused, and yet they are paid, in the case of New Jersey, I think it’s $0.22 an hour. If they work for a for-profit corporation companies like McDonald’s in prison, maybe they get 1 or $2 an hour. Nobody pays into their social security so they can work a 40-hour work week.

But that issue of… And then the commissaries have been privatized. So the average wage in the New Jersey prison system of $20 a month hasn’t gone up in decades, but the commissary prices have gone up by over 100%. And not only that, everything else. The phone service is privatized, the money transfer service is privatized, the commissary is now privatized, the medical is privatized, so they’re charged if they want to go down and get an aspirin. So talk about the financial aspect and the labor aspect.

Liz Komar: So American prisons are really designed, or at least it certainly looks like they are to extract wealth from the families of people who are incarcerated. Because the reality you said of prison wages is that people may get cents from their labor. And then oftentimes, those few cents that they make go right back to paying a really high restitution charge that it’s been imposed along with their sentence.

And so in reality, it’s their families who are typically the ones providing them with the money to buy safe food, because oftentimes the conditions in commissaries may have rodents, there may be a history of food poisoning. It may just be inedible.

And so purchasing food from the commissary is a necessity, as is having the money to use the phone to speak with family, to have access to books to keep you sane, to access things like necessary warm clothing. Really everything in prison costs money.

And I had the opportunity a few years ago to visit a German prison, and it’s really striking the extent to which it’s almost the opposite there, because there’s much more logic around the fact that, “Well, we should want people to stay in touch with their families. That reduces recidivism.” So why would you charge an extremely large fee for it? “We should want people to have the ability to earn a living wage when they’re in prison. So why don’t we even allow them to go out, work real jobs, earn real wages during their incarceration, and just come back at night?”

Things like that, that are common sense, that could be replicated here are unfortunately still incredibly rare, and difficult to remove because of the vested interests of private entities that do make money off of prisons in the United States.

Chris Hedges: Well, it’s a multi-billion dollar year business, and they’ve got the lobbyists in Washington to keep it that way. 1994, in a particularly cruel move by the Clinton administration, they launched a 30-year ban on Pell Grants. Explain what that did.

Liz Komar: That ban on Pell Grants made it much harder for incarcerated people to access any kind of college education. And I think anyone who has entered the workforce in the last 15 years or supported a child or grandchild doing that knows that to get almost any job now, you need some sort of college education. So it makes it much harder if we preclude people who are in prison from accessing any sort of relief.

Thankfully, that has changed. It hasn’t been implemented yet. There’s still a complex process of rolling out Pell Grant access that I’m not an expert in. I understand that institutions themselves have to initiate the process. But there is hope now for people who are incarcerated that they will have more access to Pell Grants, and therefore to higher education, which is wonderful. It’s good for public safety, it’s good for families, it’s good for the workforce.

Chris Hedges: I want to talk about housing. So if you’re released and you don’t have a place to go, you get shuttled into a homeless shelter. Or if you’re maybe lucky, you get a few weeks on somebody’s couch, and then you have to go to… But this is very disruptive. It’s the instability of housing, I found, my students who’ve gotten out. If they can’t find a stable place to live, they can’t find a job. They can’t go into public housing. So they may have a spouse in public housing, but they’re not allowed to move in. Or even in the case of one of my students, he moved in with his fiancee in a trailer park. They did a background check, and they threw him out for… He’d served his time for a crime he committed 30 years before. But I mean, employment is huge, but so is housing.

Liz Komar: Right. And I think that’s why many countries around the world have explored housing first models. So the idea that people should be able to access housing without barriers. Those barriers can be things like not discriminating based on criminal records, but also not discriminating based on things like substance use.

And in the United States, it’s so hard to access housing supports, especially for people who are returning to the community. And the housing supports that do exist often involve living with other people who are re-entering. And that’s not always the stable environment that people need. And so making sure that people can access quality safe housing is important.

Chris Hedges: Let’s close by talking about the impact of incarceration on families, and in particular children.

Liz Komar: Sure. So unfortunately, still far too many children in the United States will experience the incarceration of a parent at some point during their life. And of course, that disproportionately impacts children of color. And that means, first of all, they’ve suffered trauma of that, of having a loved one behind bars, of only getting to see them after they’ve traveled for hours often, spending all of their holidays doing that to encounter a visiting room at best. They may be turned away if they’re not wearing the right thing at the gate that day.

And then celebrating Thanksgiving, every Thanksgiving, by eating something from a vending machine with a loved one in a prison waiting room. Or worse, not seeing their loved one for several years at all. And so the impact on families, emotional and then also economic really can’t be understated.

And so I encourage folks to check out the work of WE GOT US NOW, which is a nonprofit run by the children of incarcerated Parents for the children of incarcerated parents, because when people have an incarcerated parent, that means not only is there one less provider in the house, that the household is also usually spending a lot of money to support that incarcerated individual.

And so people encounter a lot of barriers, and it’s important that organizations like that exist to advocate for solutions and care for the children of incarcerated parents.

Chris Hedges: Well, you write that 25% of black children, 10% of Latino children experience parental incarceration compared to 4% of white children. When you have disproportionately long sentences, and my students say it’s basically five years, suddenly the visits stop coming. People find new partners. My students will beg that even if they go on to another relationship, they at least bring the children to visit. They usually do not.

You have, of course, as you mentioned, the visitation process can be quite difficult, and many of my students will go to paralegals and write their own divorce papers for their spouses. They tell their mothers, “Don’t come. Think of me as dead.” In a short term, a few years, perhaps you can sustain it. But when you’re talking about decades, these families largely disintegrate. And these children often lose touch with their… And of course, the incarcerated mother, or worse for the mothers, because they don’t get the support that the male prisoners get usually. And I taught in the women’s prison in New Jersey. And at night up and down the tier, you hear the weeping because they’re talking to their children who have been turned over to foster families. It’s deeply destructive to families, as a consequence of being deeply destructive to the very fabric of the community itself.

Liz Komar: Absolutely. When we remove the parents from the family, we’re removing an entire structure of support the children deserve. And I don’t also want to minimize the number of people who serve long sentences in prison and somehow manage to be fantastic parents from behind bars. I know many of them, and I don’t want to understate the incredible work that they did to make sure that that was possible, but it’s so challenging.

And we shouldn’t have a system of incarceration that inherently divides families. Because what we also know from research is that if really all we care about is public safety, then we should be doing our best to maintain family bonds, because that makes everyone safer, and also provides those children with more advantages later on.

Chris Hedges: Well, we also know from behavioral studies that these children, because of that trauma, act out in school. There are emotional difficulties that come with having an incarcerated parent.

Liz Komar: Absolutely.

Chris Hedges: Great. That was Liz Komar, Sentencing Reform Counsel at The Sentencing Project. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at

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