Texas Advocates for Justice (TAJ), a program Grassroots Leadership that unites formerly incarcerated individuals, their families, and allies to build safe and resilient communities through organizing, leadership training, and connections to community resources, deliberately consulted in the conception, development, and analysis of a community-led research project that documented the lived experiences of individuals affected by incarceration in Texas. We can only understand the causes of mass incarceration by allowing researchers to see both problem and solution from a first-person perspective.
In partnership with the University of Texas at Austin, TAJ developed surveys to interview formerly incarcerated individuals. The participatory process of creating the survey instruments centered the perspectives and leadership of TAJ members, all of whom either have experience with the effects incarceration or are close allies in the movement for justice. A total number of 71 surveys were completed and are analyzed here. The community-led research project was carried out in three phases between April 2015 and December 2015.
Surveys included quantitative and qualitative questions. We collected demographic information including race, gender, income, ZIP code before and after incarceration, post-release supervision, and family structure. In addition to interviewing currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, we aimed to supplement our findings by developing a survey specifically for the family members of incarcerated individuals and gather information about how imprisonment affects the broader community.
Our goal was to learn directly from individuals who have experienced incarceration and their family members about the causes that led them to come into contact with the criminal justice system; the challenges they faced during incarceration; how they were received in their communities after release; and, their insights on how to make their communities healthier.
The majority of our sample is African American men from low-income Houston ZIP codes. This is in part because many of our interviewers were African American TAJ members from Houston who were interviewing their family members. The majority of individuals that Texas incarcerated are African American, and learning more about the experiences of African Americans is critical as Black communities are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. In Texas, while Black individuals represent only 12.5 percent of the state population, 35 percent of the individuals that Texas incarcerates are Black. For future research, Texas Advocates for Justice is interested in learning more about other communities affected by incarceration including Latinas, women, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants, and youth.
The questions asked of the respondents were clustered around the following issues:
- What do you think led to your contact with the criminal justice system?
- What do you think are the drivers of mass incarceration?
- How has the criminal justice system impacted you?
- How has the criminal justice system impacted your family?
- What is the role of prison in a healthy society?
This report documents the pre- and post-prison journeys of individuals and families and explores the policy implications of their experiences. Through this work we found that:
- A striking 81 percent of respondents reported having been suspended from school, adding statistical weight to the idea that school disciplinary issues may presage criminal justice involvement. In addition, 37 percent of respondents reported being expelled.
- More than half of respondents had three people or less in their personal networks of support before incarceration, indicating an erosion of community involvement for these individuals. While this statistic may be indicative of isolation by choice, it may also point to a lack of resources and community-based programming that might serve as support for people at risk of behavior that could lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.
- While almost 37 percent reported having been raised by a man and woman together – aunt and uncle, grandparents, or parents – 54 percent of the individuals taking the survey reported that their main caregiver as a child was either their mother or grandmother. With only two percent replying that their primary caregiver was a man, this highlights the disproportionate responsibility shouldered by women in communities overly affected by incarceration.
- There were two trends that seemed to demonstrate an awareness of systemic reasons behind mass incarceration, but an unwillingness to attribute personal involvement with the criminal justice system to anything other than personal or community failings.
- First, 19 percent said personal failings or lack of personal accountability resulted in their incarceration. Combined with the 10 percent who said their neighborhoods were at fault, the eight percent who cited low self-esteem, and the 25 percent who said the wrong friends were the cause, a total of 62 percent blamed themselves or their friends for their personal incarceration, while only three percent looked to systemic causes. Yet, when speaking of others, 14 percent of respondents said mass incarceration was due to racial profiling, 13 percent cited failings in the educational system, 11 percent blamed economic issues, with five percent laying fault in prison profiteering.
- Second, there was a stark difference in what respondents claimed were positive effects on incarceration on them and their families. Forty percent of those answering the survey said the criminal justice system had a positive effect on their character, their education, their faith, their sobriety, or just them in general. However, only five percent of respondents said involvement had a positive impact on their families, meaning that the perceived good that prison or jail had on them did not translate into anything good to those closest to them. This may point, again, to a feeling of personal powerlessness or unworthiness that they perceived as corrected by contact with an institution, but an awareness that prisons and jails are ultimately detrimental to our loved ones and community.
It is difficult to read this report and not be struck by the implications of the key findings above, especially the fact that most of the respondents began their journey through the criminal justice system as children in their respective schools. It is also disconcerting to read that so many individuals are able to distance themselves from the pernicious effects of the criminal justice system and put so much of the blame on themselves, their friends, and their community and yet clearly see the system effects on others.
Therefore, we recommend the following:
- That TAJ-Houston members develop a policy platform that includes visits to and policy recommendations to Houston-area officials, including Houston Independent School District administrators, which focus on the documented abuses of zero-tolerance policies; on alternative disciplinary approaches that reduce suspensions and expulsions; on Restorative Justice programs that address in-school issues as they occur and are proactive instead of reactive; and on programs that reach those children already in ISS and alternative schools.
- That TAJ-Houston devise and implement political education classes for communities that focus on the systemic racism, sexism, and otherism that contribute to incarceration as a way to contribute to a deeper understanding of the effects of those isms on the devastating cycle of incarceration that plague our communities.