20 Years Behind Bars: Incarceration, Re-Entry, and Mental Health

What is prison really like? In this episode, we are talking about incarceration – mental health implications and issues related to re-entry into society.

Craig Pohlman, Ph.D., Jennifer Fights, LPC, will discuss the history of incarceration in the United States. They also have an in-depth discussion with special guest Gemini Boyd (founder of Project Bolt), who was incarcerated for 20 years and is grappling with the challenges of re-entry.

Support Gemini Boyd and Project Bolt through the following ways:

Recommended Readings to Learn More About the History of Our Criminal Justice System, Incarceration, and Mental Health

Racial Inequities and Our Criminal Justice System

Jen Neitzel, Ph.D. – Executive Director of the Education Equity Institute

According to the Sentencing Project, 1 in 3 Black men is likely to spend time in prison in their lifetime, compared to 1 in 17 White men.

The racial disparity also exists for women. 1 in 111 White women will spend time in prison, however, with Black women this likelihood increases to 1 in 18. It is hard to ignore the connection between the educational system and the criminal justice system when we look at these statistics in conjunction with suspension and expulsion rates for Black children versus White children.

Statistics indicate that Black children are 1.8 times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their White peers, with Black boys being more affected by these disciplinary actions. In fact, they are suspended or expelled at a rate of 3.5 times greater than White children.

Although suspensions and expulsions are generally associated with older children, recent statistics suggest that an alarming number of young children, who are overwhelmingly Black, are being excluded from early learning environments. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has reported that young Black children are suspended or expelled at up to 4 times the rate of White children.

Once a child is suspended from school even one time, he or she is more likely to be suspended repeatedly, drop out of school, or enter the criminal justice system – hence the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline.”

In fact, the incarceration industry looks at 3rd-grade reading levels and suspension rates to determine when and where to build new prisons. A key piece that is needed to unravel the ties between our educational and criminal justice systems is to dig deeper into the root causes and historical underpinnings of today’s practices.

Beginning in the late 1800s, vagrancy laws, which required Blacks to be able to prove that they had jobs, were particularly malicious. Jobs were very hard to come by in early Jim Crow. If Black people (primarily Black men) were unable to prove that they were employed, they were immediately convicted by law enforcement.

The most common way for Black people to overcome their debts to society was forced labor on former plantations and in private companies.

By 1880, nearly 25 percent of these convicts were children; some as young as six years of age. As such, many Black children could not attend school, and when they did their learning experiences were woefully inferior.

These policies, in conjunction with the social construction of the Black male as deviant, has led to a tendency to view Black boys as older than they are, known more simply as adultification.

From the beginning of their lives, Black boys are “scripted out of childhood humanity,” which has direct implications about the expectations we have for them, both academically and behaviorally.

Black boys often are on the receiving end of a presumption of guilt and wrongdoing even when the evidence says otherwise, which directly feeds into the criminal justice system.

We have much work to do in this country. Centuries of inequitable policies and practices have ensured the mass incarceration of Black boys and men, as well as Black women and girls. It will take a collective effort to reform the current educational and criminal justice systems.

For those of us who aren’t in the weeds of social justice work, there are still actions you can take to assist in the cause.

1. Read, educate yourselves about race, racism, and the true history of our country. Attend community events focused on race. Get proximate to people who don’t look like you and who have had different experiences than you. Build authentic relationships, not ones grounded in saviorism and paternalism. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

2. Follow Black journalists, authors, and leaders on social media. They are the truth-tellers, and we need to listen to them.

3. Educate yourselves about candidates and vote for those who are focused on disrupting the systems, not those who are focused on maintaining the status quo by placing band-aids on the problem or ignoring the root causes.

For those of us within the educational system, it is essential that school personnel are adequately trained regarding racial inequities and how to address them throughout the day.

This means moving beyond diversity training and the implementation of isolated literacy and social skills interventions that do not address root causes.

There must be an increased focus on implementing culturally responsive anti-bias practices, addressing trauma in a meaningful way, and helping educators manage behaviors in a way that keeps children in the classroom and out of the principal’s office.

Finally, policies must be reformed to severely limit the use of suspensions and expulsions so that we can help disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Real Story of Calvin’s Incarceration and Experience in Prison

Calvin idolized his uncle, who filled a mentor role with his father out of his life. Now that Calvin was an adult he saw his uncle more as a peer, but he still revered him and sought him out regularly for guidance.

So one day when his uncle asked him to come to his place to do a favor, Calvin headed over without hesitation. What he found there shook him to the core.

A dead body.

His uncle assured him that all could be explained, but that he needed him to dispose of the body across town- to find a dumpster and leave it there. Calvin was torn between wanting to walk away and helping the man who had helped him so many times in his life.

He made the fateful decision to do what his uncle asked. Over the next few days, he could of nothing except the corpse he had abandoned in that dumpster. His uncle never checked in with him and he did not return calls or texts.

A week later the police arrived at Calvin’s door. He was arrested, charged, and convicted with accessory to murder. His uncle never vouched for him or admitted his culpability. Only Calvin went to prison, burdened with a lengthy sentence as well as the betrayal of someone so important to him.

He was traumatized even before his cell door slammed shut.

The trauma of the betrayal Calvin suffered was amplified by what he saw and experienced behind bars. Weeks turned to months turned to years, and Calvin’s mental health deteriorated even as he accessed on-site counseling services.

Sensing weakness, some inmates taunted Calvin, even suggesting that he take his own life. They told him to be sure to go uptown, rather than crosstown, to do the job right. Meaning- make a long gash from his wrist up to his forearm, rather than across his wrist, so that he will bleed out faster.

One day Calvin took that advice, going uptown when he was alone in the shower room. A guard on rounds happened upon him just moments before he slipped away.

His physical wounds were healed during a stay in the infirmary. But he was even more traumatized upon his return to the general population. All he could do was go back for more counseling.

Which, by the way, was provided by fellow inmates, under the supervision of a psychologist who never met face-to-face with Calvin even once. Those inmates were paid $5 a month for providing so-called therapy…


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