Beverly Brown and her granddaughter Marquis, 18, share an iPod at a Christmas dinner at Rock Quarry Church in Austin. Beverly was forced to raise Marquis because her daughter Vicky was in and out of prison and drug treatment programs.
Instead of seeing her relatives on holidays and at other family gatherings, she must make long trips for supervised reunions in prison visiting rooms. The daily face-to-face conversations they once enjoyed are now reduced to prison correspondence: expensive collect phone calls or the letters routinely opened and read by the prison authorities before being delivered to their owner. Each time one of her brothers or children was incarcerated, Beverly’s role as mother and a grandmother stretched and became more stressed as she faced additional emotional and financial burdens as guardian for their children too.
Beverly’s family is just another statistic in America’s War on Drugs, the enforcement effort that has had an unimaginable effect on poor minority populations in the United States. In Beverly’s own community statistics are similar to those throughout the country. Unequal enforcement of drug laws filled prisons with African Americans–men and women. The loss of those individuals radiated back into the their neighborhoods, which eventually destabilized entire communities. Upon their release, these individuals reenter the community as second-class citizens. The aftermath of drug policies continue to deny the American Dream to countless poor African American families, who are left to pass on a legacy of incarceration.
When Beverly’s mother died in 2002, she became the primary family nurturer. Despite a limited income, she would send money to her imprisoned family members so they could buy little things like Snickers bars or a Coke. Beverly has never been to prison, but she spent some of her later adult years addicted to drugs, has been clean for 15 years now. Because so many of Beverly’s family members are stuck in the cycle of incarceration, her role as mother has been extended beyond the normal years of parenting. Over two decades, she has served as the primary care provider for nine of her 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren during their lives. And while most of her adult children have long ago moved out, her daughter Bebe, 49, still lives with her.
As Beverly’s situation so clearly shows the effects of incarceration reach beyond the lives of those living locked behind bars. It reaches into the living rooms of poor African-American families across the United States. Beverly and her family are not living an isolated or anomalous experience. For too many African American families, prison has become a normal rite of passage–especially for young men. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in 3 black men will go to prison during their lifetime.
The question is not only why this is so, but also what impact this has on communities of color. Mass incarceration acts as what Donald Braman, the author of the book Doing Time on The Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America, calls a hidden tax, which affects poor families with direct connections with inmates. Women like Beverly, who are struggling to keep their families and communities intact, have grown in
number because of an explosion in the inmate population over the past three decades. Underlying the growth of incarcerated men and women in the United States are federal government policies created to protect its citizens from the harmful effects of drugs. However, these laws, which have become stricter with each successive generation, have had a corrosive effect on the very communities that the laws were intended to protect.
Beverly recognizes that drug addiction fueled the problems endured by her family members and her community on multiple levels. She points to the faces framed on the wall as she remembers a time when prisons and drugs were not such a large part of life in East Austin. None of the early generations of Beverly’s family members had been to prison. From her seat in her living room she stares out the window, wondering aloud how her family became trapped in the cycle of drugs and incarceration.
“I remember hearing my grandmother use the term generational curse. I didn’t understand until I saw . . . my brothers go to prison. Then a couple of their children went. Then I actually had two daughters that have been to prison and two of my sons have been to prison,” she says.
Beverly reaches over to a cooler that serves as an end table at the side of the couch. It is cluttered with papers and plastic drink containers. She pulls out a letter from her son Don Brown, who has recently returned to jail for a parole violation. A few weeks before, she worried about where he would be sent to serve his time. Her experiences with the state prison system tell her that he could be sent almost anywhere in Texas. The letter says he was transferred from Travis County Jail in Del Valle to Travis State Jail located off State Road 969. He tells her that he is comfortable in his new surroundings. He also asks her to come visit on a Saturday or Sunday.. Beverly’s face brightens when she reads that during the visit they will be able to have some physical contact. “We set down at a little table together. We can touch each other hands we can hug,” she says somberly. The last time she made a trip to Del Valle she never set foot in the same room as her son Don. “They have this square box. They tell you not to touch it and don’t pick up the receiver. Then when you see him you pick it up. If you pick it up before that your visit is cancelled,” she says, dismayed by being reduced to talking with her son through a telephone connected to a small video screen. “To me that takes away some more of the. . .” she pauses and shakes her head “. . .the personal, some of the closeness from the visit. They’re just finding another way to rob them. It’s not aimed at me, it’s aimed at the inmate.”