Fellow Experience Working on "Imprisoning Communities" Project

Published on
July 16, 2012

Many Californians know that they foot the bill for one of the largest prison systems in the world: the annual cost per inmate is estimated to be as high as $55,527 for 2012.  My intention for the series on "Lessening the Impact of Incarceration on Oakland" was to look beyond the tremendous financial costs of incarceration and examine the collateral damage to individuals, their families, and whole communities in Oakland.

Many families in the poorest parts of Oakland have a brother, father, son or mother that has spent time in prison. I wanted to look at the parts of Oakland that are already impacted by poverty, crime and chronic health problems and that absorb the majority of the formerly incarcerated who return with few resources: they are barred from receiving food stamps; they often cannot benefit from public housing; and they are denied student loans.  

After reading Todd Clear’s book, 'Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse,' my intention was to explore the less visible and but highly destabilizing effects of incarceration. As Michael Shaw, the director of the Office of Urban Male Health within the Alameda Public Health Department said, “The impact on Oakland of having so many men going in and out of prison is tremendous. The high level of incarceration rate in parts of East and West Oakland is both a result of instability in the African-American community and it is also a cause of that very same instability.”

My first surprising challenge was discovering that there was little accessible data kept by the Probation Department, the Sheriff’s Department, or the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation about what happens to people after they are released from jail or prison. Urban Strategies Institute compiled an extensive report in 2010 that created maps that showed the numbers of parolees and probationers in certain sections of Oakland, but beyond that I was not able to get data that showed the numbers of people released into Oakland over the past five years and in what general neighborhood they were living.

The Sheriff’s Department said that approximately 51,000 people cycled through Santa Rita County Jail last year, but when asked how many of those people were returning for the first or second time, I was told that they didn’t keep those statistics. So while I found that Alameda County was ahead of the curve in terms of planning for realignment, the lack of collaboration between agencies to establish a cohesive data collection plan showed that there is a long way to go.

Where I did find a high degree of collaboration was among many different agencies from the Probation Department, the Health Department, the Sheriffs Department, and the Social Services department, all in dialogue with programs that serve the formerly incarcerated, along with former inmates themselves. In over 25 interviews, there was a frequently voiced understanding of how structural and institutional racism combines with poverty and contributes to crime; a recognition of the need to create a more holistic and integrated response to the problem of recidivism; and an acknowledgement that these are big bureaucratic ships to turn around.

I found a widespread understanding that not only do the formerly incarcerated need jobs and housing, but they need interventions geared to lessen their addiction to criminal thinking. As one former inmate who now works in violence prevention said to a group of recently released inmates, “Face it, your primary drug of choice is your criminal lifestyle.”

Increasing research points to the vital role that family can play in reducing recidivism by maintaining contact during incarceration and having help with family re-integration after release. The need to assist newly released inmates to establish healthier relationships with family members and children was understood by many, but there were few programs that explicitly addressed that need.

I profiled one of the programs that work with teens with incarcerated parents called Project WHAT! Their model of empowering teens starts by having them apply for a paid position to learn how to be speakers, advocates, and mentors. Over the last six years Project What! has worked with 64 youth, but based on rough approximations, there are thousands of Oakland youth that has been impacted by parental incarceration that have not been reached through any program.

I hope to continue reporting on the impact on children of parental incarceration. I would like to look into the procedures and policies for family visitation in Northern California prisons to see how family-friendly the visiting conditions are, especially now that it is understood that maintaining family connections during incarceration lessens the likelihood of recidivism


I interviewed Dan Simmons, the program officer for a re-entry program. When Mr. Simmons, who was formerly incarcerated himself, spoke about the need to focus more on the people that have been out 10 to 15 years and have been successful, a light bulb went off for me. I am beginning a project that would identify 20-30 formerly incarcerated men and women who have successfully reentered society. I hope to mine their stories: what were the biggest challenges, what most help them succeed, and create a welcome home booklet of their cumulative knowledge that is shared with every newly released inmate in Alameda County.

A Department of Justice 2002 study on Families and Incarceration found that “[t]he most significant impact of the stigma related to increased incarceration has been the silencing and isolation of families of prisoners. The effects of incarceration are hidden by families because of the stigma they carry and made further invisible by stereotypes of inner-city families and communities. But this presents a significant dilemma, for how can we as a society address such a muted problem, something so invisible?”

This is a dilemma that I hope to address in future reporting: making the impacts of incarceration more visible, look at alternatives to incarceration, and bring the impacts on their families and children out of the shadows and into the limelight.

Images by Micky Duxbury