An Austin Police Department vehicle drives by while Marquis Brown, 18, Bebe Brown and Leroy Brown hangout on the front porch of Beverly Brown’s house in Austin. Leroy, Beverly’s brother, has been incarcerated.
Beverly Brown’s front door opens into a tiny orange colored living room packed with decades of family achievement, heartfelt dramas and memories. The room is lined by two puffy oversized gray couches and three skinny wood-framed chairs. Each seat affords its sitter a view of walls blanketed in photographic memorabilia, faded greeting cards and high school diplomas.
Beverly, 64, a mother of four, sits to the right of the door facing the television set. The evening news blasts the latest local reports. The sound of fingers fumbling with the hook-and-eye screen-door diverts Beverly’s attention and she raises her head to see who it is. She isn’t startled. She recognizes her visitor, as one of the continuing cast of family and friends who drop in and out. Usually they profess to need only a few minutes of her time, but as often as not the visits stretch into hours of gossip and other talk. This constant foot traffic is the norm at the small brick ranch-style house located in the historically African American part of East Austin. The house is also the family’s homestead and main material asset. Even more importantly, it is the core of family life.
Jim Houston, 58, Beverly’s brother, pokes his wrinkled face through the doorway and says, “hello.” He sets down a white plastic bag full with groceries and reaches up to pull a sock cap off his head, revealing his straightened shiny black hair. The air is chilly on this late December day. Jim takes off his red coat and hangs it above his bags of food. He is just stopping by on his way home. “Are you hungry?” Beverly asks. “There’s food in the refrigerator.” Jim tells her that he’s famished and walks into the kitchen to prepare himself a plate of food. Beverly’s gaze follows him as he steps into the kitchen.
Her house on 12th Street and Airport Boulevard has served as her perch for nearly half a century and she has grown accustomed to family members’ unexpected visits. She proudly remembers the East Austin of her youth as a vibrant and prosperous black community. As she grew older, her pride turned to sadness as she watched drugs and poverty devastate the neighborhood.
Beverly’s heartbreaking memories began when she was still very young, as she watched her brothers locked up, one by one. She remembers her father picking up the phone and then quickly telling the family to get dressed. “Jim is about to catch the chain to Texas Department of Corrections (TDC),” he says. Beverly’s father rounded up his wife and children and hurried them to the county jail. “He just wanted to get one last look at him. When they brought him out of there he was shackled, around his feet, his waist and his hands,” she says, quietly recalling the thick chains that wrapped her brother’s body.
Feeling ashamed the boy glared at his father: “Mama, daddy, why y’all bring them down here,” Jim cried, glancing at his siblings. After witnessing her brother reduced to cargo, as he was loaded up into a bus and driven away, Beverly wept for days. “It was a horrible experience,” she says. Unfortunately for Beverly, this trend of watching her family members’ cycle in and out of prison was only just beginning.
The incarceration rates for Beverly’s 78702 zip code is five times the average rate in Austin. The city of Austin will spend nearly an estimated $12 million to incarcerate people from her zip code and the neighboring zip code 78721, which has a similar prison admission rate. More than 17 percent of the people incarcerated in Austin come from these two zip codes, containing only 3.5 percent of the city’s total adult population.
In her lifetime, all of her brothers have been incarcerated at some point and three of her five children have also spent time in jail. Beverly is not sure how it happened. But, somewhere between her generation and her parents’, legal, social and economic
conditions combined to trap poor African American families in generational cycles of incarceration. At the same time that her family was becoming ensnared by drugs, the federal and state governments began cracking down on drugs all over America. Drug
policy was not being applied equally across racial lines. It is true that from 1980 to 2003, drug arrest rates went up for both blacks and whites nationally. But, African American arrests increased by 225 percent versus 70 percent for whites during this period, according to Ryan S. King, author of the Sentencing Project Report Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America’s Cities.
Austin, Texas was not immune from this trend. The disparity between black and white drug arrests was even greater, at an increase of 394 percent in the number of black arrests while the white arrest rate grew by only 16 percent. What is more troubling about these arrest rates is that actual drug use among African Americans did not rise. According to the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services, black drug use remains proportional to their 12 percent share of the general population. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reports that only 12 percent of African Americans are regular users. According to Robert Perkinson, author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, from 1965 to 2000, this disparity in drug arrests helped fuel a 1,200 percent increase of the inmate population in Texas.