How Mass Incarceration Underdevelops Latino Communities


How Mass Incarceration Underdevelops Latino Communities


IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE SCHOLARSHIP, THERE IS AN ABUNDANCE OF RESEARCH that charts the monumental growth of American prisons in the post–civil rights era. Scholars have labeled this punitive posture by a host of terms, perhaps most prominently mass incarceration or mass imprisonment (Garland 2001, 51). Other monikers include “hyper-incarceration,” “warehousing,” “prison industrial complex,” and “incarceration nation.” During this period, prison rates soared and in due time distinguished the country with the highest rate of incarceration and largest prison population in the world. The shift to incarceration, however, was not evenly spread among American society, but rather became the burden of underclass ethnic communities (Morín 2009). While the darkening of American prisons has been well told, little research has focused on the implications for communities to which inmates return.1 Even less research focuses on Latino communities. This chapter contributes by offering a comprehensive picture of how the penal system not only arrests the development of Latino communities, but affirmatively works to hinder them.

The term “underdevelop” takes its cue from Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (1983), which argues for underdevelopment as the consequence of intentional exploitation. Here, the major force of underdevelopment is the criminal justice system, although the two are not mutually exclusive since there are significant capitalist interests in the criminal justice system, including privately owned prisons. The underdevelopment concept reveals criminal justice as a driving force of structural exploitation, which itself is subject to capitalist pressures.

Although African Americans have been exploited by the criminal justice system like no other group in America, inquiry into incarceration has often overlooked important Latino elements. One commentator has lamented that even for all its acclaim and accolade, Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2011) failed to recognize the ever-burgeoning number of incarcerated immigrants: “I often wonder if to blacks, Latinos are invisible, as blacks are to whites, such that we do not even enter black consciousness (Vargas-Vargas 2012, 367). This chapter aims to fill this void by concentrating on Latinos, their communities, and their place in the discussion.

Collateral Consequences: Shackles beyond the Sentence

To understand the scale of collateral consequences on Latino communities, it is critical to understand the magnitude of prison growth in the last four decades. For some, the decades-long spike in punishment was unexpected, as exemplified by leading prison scholar David Rothman, whose The Discovery of the Asylum boldly proclaimed in 1971, “We have been gradually escaping from institutional responses and one can foresee the period when incarceration will be used still more rarely than it is today” (Rothman 2002, 295). Little did Rothman recognize there would be a renaissance in punishment in the years following the 1950s and 1960s and the struggle to secure favorable Supreme Court decisions, civil rights legislation, and social policies. Latinos, like other struggling groups, seemed poised to reap the full promise of American citizenship. Rothman’s prediction, however, went terribly awry, and instead, Southern Strategy ideology employed the criminal justice system as a means of reversing civil rights gains and maintaining pre–civil rights hierarchies (Clayton and Pickerill 2006). As this new penal age dawned, Latinos faced increasing rates of incarceration, as reflected in figure 1 on U.S. Latino inmate populations.

The graph indicates a sharp growth in Latino prisoners, yet the figures may be just the “tip of the iceberg” for understanding Latino growth. According to a report by the National Council of La Raza, research obstacles undermine the census of Latinos in prison, and “Latinos in the criminal justice system are seriously undercounted. The true extent of the overrepresentation of Latinos in the system probably is significantly greater than researchers have been able to document.” Lack of empirical data on Latinos is partially due to prisons’ failures to document race at intake, or recording practices that historically have classified Latinos as white. The practice produced decades of overreporting of whites and underreporting of Latinos. Even then, the story told is striking: In 2000, Latinos represented less than 13 percent of the general U.S. population, but numbered 31 percent of federal prisoners (Walker et al. 2004, 15–16). According to the Sentencing Project, from 1990 to 2005, the number of Latinos in state and federal prisons rose by 43 percent, resulting in one of every six Latino males experiencing imprisonment in his lifetime (Mauer and King 2007, 2). Today, one in five inmates in federal, state, and local prisons/jails are Latino/a (American Bar Association 2013b, 60).


Among the social effects of this situation is that communities are forced to absorb ever-increasing numbers of returning convicts, who return saddled not only by the stigma of imprisonment, but numerous collateral consequences that negatively affect the ex-felon and the entire community (Coker 2003). The consequences are “collateral” as they arise from regulations of agencies outside the control of the justice system, which typically result in restrictions on housing, employment, licensing, and civic duties such as jury duty and voting (Liebling and Maruna 2005). They are “not highly publicized” (Demleitner 1999, 153) and represent “penalties, disabilities, or disadvantages” that occur automatically because of the conviction, in addition to the sentence itself (Chin 2002, 257).

In addition to the legal consequences, extralegal factors are critical to assessing the structural impacts on communities. These “invisible punishments” (Travis and Visher 2005, 9) include policies and practices that, “overtly or subtly, advantage one racial group over another, thereby facilitating racially disparate outcomes” (Research Working Group 2011, 632) as well as other collateral consequences or “spillover” effects of imprisonment (Rios 2006, 41). For select communities, this comes with a hefty price, as they must reabsorb hundreds of thousands of inmates a year, including many who will return with various hardships and maladaptations that include posttraumatic stress disorders (Haney 2004), physical and mental illness (SpearIt 2009), addiction, and criminogenic proclivities such as rape and sexual assault (SpearIt 2011). It is a losing situation for ex-prisoners since the communities to which they typically return are usually less stable and unable to provide social services (Seiter and Kadela 2003, 380).

Just how harmful the system is on underclass ethnic communities is at the early stages of research, and the impact of mass incarceration on the social fabric of poor neighborhoods has not been fully appreciated or adequately studied (Irwin 2005, 248–49). Nonetheless, scholars have used terms like “toxic waste dumps” (Simon 2007, 142) and “plague” (Drucker 2011) to describe the latent impacts. The return of so many ex-inmates makes an already difficult situation worse, since individuals who are convicted of crimes are already disadvantaged before their conviction by reduced employment and earnings, which renders the justice system as “both consequence and cause of poverty” (Harris, Evans, and Beckett 2010, 1756).

Burdening Convicts and Their Communities

A felony conviction or time spent in prison is the scarlet letter of the present, which deeply impacts communities. A conviction leads to all sorts of social, political, and economic disadvantages for felons, and has been dubbed the “new civil death” (Chin 2012, 179). In the aggregate, these obstacles make it difficult for released inmates to transition to society successfully, which, in turn, makes it difficult for these communities to achieve social stability. The pernicious effects are said to trigger a process of “intergenerational educational detainment,” which increases risk of homelessness, inadequate health-care coverage, and disenfranchisement among the children of the incarcerated (Foster and Hagan 2007, 399).

Imprisonment imposes economic hardships on both family and friends. The prisoner may be a parent, spouse, sibling, or other relative relied on by others, which makes the offender’s family experience the incarceration as “de facto punishment” (Demleitner 1999, 153–54). According to one study, family income is 22 percent lower after a father is incarcerated (Western and Pettit 2010, 5), while another showed that ex-prisoners earned wages 16–28 percent lower than the general population (Western, Kling, and Weiman 2001, 12). Often, loved ones are sentenced vicariously, having to make long drives out to correctional facilities, expending personal and work-related time, gas, wear and tear on vehicles, and expenses for sending letters, packages, and money to commissary accounts, in addition to money for legal fees (Murray 2005). In due course, “relatives find that providing money and other items for their imprisoned relatives is a byproduct of maintaining family contact” (Travis and Waul 2004, 265).

Imprisonment strains relationships between inmates and family and friends. At a base social level are the shame and stigma of a relative’s incarceration (Rose and Clear 2002). Imprisonment is also associated with decreased marriage rates and high rates of divorce among the inner-city poor, the disruption of families, and growth in the prison population, which incurs “a large and unaccounted social cost.” With divorce rates of about 50 percent, prisoners compare well to the population as a whole; however, it takes prisoners only a third of the time for their marriage to dissolve (Western 2007, 147).

Long-term damage to the family is likely when the prisoner is a parent. Between adult and juvenile parents, there are currently over 2 million children in the United States with a parent currently serving time in prison (Clear 2009, 95); one quarter of all juveniles themselves have children (Pattillo, Weiman, and Western 2004), with Latino males constituting 20 percent of all parents in prison in 2007 (Glaze and Maruschak 2008, 2). Understanding the exact impact of having a parent incarcerated is complicated since the effect may be related to other competing hardships in a child’s life, including “the parent-child separation, the crime and arrest that preceded incarceration, or the general instability and inadequate care at home” (Travis, Solomon, and Waul 2001, 35). Nonetheless, the loss of a parent to prison is comparable to the way death or divorce impacts a child (Clear 2009). Furthermore, removal and reentry of offenders impact some communities more than others, such that children are affected not only directly by incarceration in their home, but in the community at large (Clear 2009, 163). The effects are deleterious, and on average, children with a parent incarcerated are more likely to become delinquent themselves (Fullilove 2011, 358).

Educational gaps correlate with removal of a parent to prison, and the children of incarcerated parents are more likely to have school-related performance problems, depression, anxiety, and lower self-esteem (Hagan and Dinovitzer 1999, 121). Increases in family disruption are associated with “increased risks of poor school performance by children, of domestic violence and of contact with the juvenile justice system” (Clear 2009, 98). A mother’s incarceration has been found to produce significant worsening of both reading scores and behavioral problems in affected children (Shierholz and Moore 2005). One study reports that almost three out of five African American high-school dropouts will spend some time in prison (Pettit and Western 2004, 151). For felons, some of these educational deficiencies are traceable to government policies that disqualify felons from federal and state financial assistance (Forman 2012, 21). These factors contribute to school-to-prison pipelines, which are characterized as “policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”2

Broader consequences of imprisonment include increased prospects for crime and violence in communities. Even though the relationship among prisons, prisoner reentry, and crime is unclear, some studies have found that incarceration increases crime at the neighborhood level (Clear et al. 2003, 33) and beyond (Rose, Clear, and Ryder 2002). More recent research indicates that increased incarceration is followed by increased crime (Piquero et al. 2006).

The debilitating social effects are worsened by the political effect of felony disenfranchisement. As individual states determine voting and disenfranchisement laws, the great majority of states opt to disenfranchise felony convicts, a practice upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court.3 Today, all but two states, Maine and Vermont, place some form of voting restrictions on convicted felons, while thirteen states and the District of Columbia prohibit convicted felons from voting only during imprisonment; thirty-five states extend disenfranchisement to probation, parole, or both, and in some states the restriction may be permanent (The Sentencing Project 2012, 1).

The political effect is that approximately 6 million adults in the United States are prohibited from voting due to their criminal record (Uggen, Shannon, and Manza 2012, 1). Although there are no reliable statistics on Latinos, a decade ago it was reported that over half a million disenfranchised individuals were Latino, and that Latinos were more likely to be disenfranchised than the general population (Demeo and Ochoa 2003, ii). Part of the gap in understanding this phenomenon is that race and ethnicity have not been consistently reported in the data sources used to compile estimates, which limits the ability to construct race-specific estimates and “is especially problematic for Latinos, who now constitute a significant portion of the criminal justice population.” Accordingly, disenfranchisement is concentrated in certain areas, with nearly 45 percent of all disenfranchised individuals coming from eleven states (Uggen, Shannon, and Manza 2012, 10).

In states that permanently disenfranchise individuals, the effect over time is permanent weakening of Latino voting power. The individual loss of voting rights aggregates into disenfranchisement of an entire community (Roberts 2004, 1271). The disenfranchisement contributes to a vicious cycle “that further disadvantages communities of color. . . . At a state level, beleaguered communities are affected through a diminished impact on public policy” (King and Mauer 2004, 15). The disparities in criminal justice thus correlate to disparities in political representation. Even though ethnic minorities, women, and the poor have always faced obstacles in voting, felony disenfranchisement stands as an effective iteration that counters decades of voting-rights gains (Fellner and Mauer 1998).

The situation has resulted in a peculiar form of voter dilution among ethnic minority communities. For minority voters, this is nothing new, since disenfranchisement laws have a long history of use, including backlash laws that followed the emancipation of slaves, which saw blacks in Louisiana constituting 44 percent of the electorate after the Civil War, but less than 1 percent in 1920 (Shapiro 1993, 537–38). In 2002, it was reported that over one-third of the total disenfranchised population were black men, and that in fifteen states, over 10 percent of the black voting-age population could not vote (Gottlieb 2002, 1941).