Category Archives: LongForm

This page features longer stories examining the affects of incarceration on families and communities.

East Austin Teens

Chelsea Shorts
Chelsea Shorts

Chelsea, 17, and Andre Shorts, 16, leave their home and walk a short distance to a bridge that crosses a creek in their East Austin neighborhood. As they approach, they spot four of their friends laughing and joking on the bridge railings. The concrete creek bed is nearly bone dry. The fragile trickle of water is a grim reminder of the ongoing drought battering central Texas. The banks of the creek are angled. There’s a chain-linked fence, lining the top on both sides of the rivulet to keep people out. Near a pedestrian bridge that crosses the stream, Andre and Chelsea pull back a corner of the fence and climb down into the creek. It’s Saturday, so they go on their ritual walk, which on some days can extend for several miles.

They stop for a break near a place they have nicknamed the “steps.” The creek’s smooth high-angled walls turn into a series of large steps made of small rocks kept in place by a wire mesh. This is where the Shorts and their friends often hang out. It is a hidden place and it offers a refuge obscured from view of the street. Having place like the “steps” is crucial for these teenagers as they navigate their surrounding neighborhood, which they affectionately call the “ghetto.” The groups of teenagers walk aggressively, their heads constantly pivoting from left to right, scanning for trouble. They leave the “steps” to walk to their next hangout place. The sound of a car driving past echoes in the creek. A glass bottle tossed from the car shatters just a few feet away from Andre. Everyone jumps from the sound of the glass exploding on the concrete. “That was crazy,” he says stunned, before adding: “A lot of stuff like that happens.”

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The Shorts and their friends experience life differently than some of the their classmates at Austin High School, which is 5 miles away from their neighborhood in a different area code. They live in the 78721 zip code of Austin, which has some the highest prison admission rates and one of the highest concentrations of poor minority residents. Their biological father has been absent most of their lives. They only recently reconnected after his release following a decade and a half in prison.

A website called the Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections produced by the Justice Mapping Center reports that in the 78721 zip code, the prison admission rate is 22.61 per 1,000. Overall for Travis County the prison admission rate is 4.10 per 1000. Across Interstate 35 in the more affluent 78746 zip code, the numbers are very different. The prison admission rate is .19 per 1,000.25 Teens who live in this area refer to it as the “Two-One,” after the zip code.

Chelsea and Andre live with their parents and siblings at their grandparents’ small house near Airport Boulevard and Springdale Avenue. Andre and Chelsea’s mother Janie Perez and their stepfather Joe Perez are very active in their lives. Janie and Joe often have been Andre’s advocates when he got in trouble at school.

 Chelsea Shorts, 17, set up a studio in a shed in the backyard of her east Austin home. She uses the space to make clothes, draw and paint. The shed is a refuge from the crowded house that she shares with her parents, grandparents, cousins and one sibling. Chelsea biological father was incarcerated for most of her life. “When you’re painting, you can paint the world however you want the world to be. I feel like when I’m creating art there are no limitations, I just have unlimited freedom,” she says.

Chelsea Shorts, 17, set up a studio in a shed in the backyard of her east Austin home. She uses the space to make clothes, draw and paint. The shed is a refuge from the crowded house that she shares with her parents, grandparents, cousins and one sibling. Chelsea biological father was incarcerated for most of her life. “When you’re painting, you can paint the world however you want the world to be. I feel like when I’m creating art there are no limitations, I just have unlimited freedom,” she says.

Andre and Chelsea are more fortunate than other children in the East Austin community. They have a family unit supporting their goals. Often, that support is only emotional, because the family’s financial resources are limited. But it is consistent and it makes a difference. Andre and Chelsea share a cramped bedroom. Every inch of their room is used. A bunk bed takes up most of the space, leaving a narrow walkway and a corner for the TV and video game system. Their house has become the official hangout spot for their group of friends. Chelsea says that at times they fit 6 or 8 of their friends in their bedroom. Their parents are happy that they gather at home, because they know that they will be safe. Being “here it’s like a vault, so we lock it down and we’re good,” Andre says.

Once they leave their homes and enter the streets, Andre says they have to be more vigilant in that environment. “When it starts to get dark at night you have to kick in your survival skills. My senses just get better because I’m about to go out there and I have to be ready for anything,” Andre says. Safely walking down a street in your own neighborhood, a fact that many teenagers from other parts of the city might take for granted, creates added stress for teenagers in East Austin. They are forced to live in a constant state of hyper awareness, always alert for bad situations that could lead to trouble. “You got to be careful around here because there are people that even see a little bit of money in your pocket will cause a lot of jealousy and hatred,” Chelsea says. “You got to keep two eyes open, one in front and one in the back.”

The kitchen in their home is bright because of the lime green walls. Chelsea sits at a table watching her family members move in and out of the room. She reflects on the challenges that she and her brother face as at-risk youth. “I probably am in the category of youth with a higher statistic [of] being arrested or as a female being pregnant at this age or doing drugs,” she says.

“The hood can be a black hole and if you let it suck you in then you’re just going to come out like everybody else. Stuck,” Chelsea says. “It gets harder and harder for you to dig yourself out of that hole.”

 The children of incarcerated parents have a much higher chance of becoming high school drop-outs, committing juvenile offenses, and becoming incarcerated themselves, according to a report from the Sentencing Project called “Incarcerated Parents and Their Children.” The study also concludes that since 1991 there has been an 82 percent increase in the number of children with imprisoned parents. Nationally, 1 in 43 American children have a parent in jail. The numbers become more extreme when they are broken down by race. For whites, 1 in 111 children have a parent imprisoned and for blacks it is 1 in 15.

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Chelsea opened the screen of the back door and stepped into the backyard. Twenty steps later she cracks open the door of grey tool shed. There she has constructed a makeshift studio in the old structure that belongs to her stepdad. Inside she has set up a blank paint canvas, an airbrush kit and a few other artist supplies. Chelsea dreams of being an artist and owning her own business. “When you’re painting, you can paint the world however you want the world to be. I feel like when I’m creating art there are no limitations, I just have unlimited freedom,” she says.

Andre has dreams of life 3,000 feet above ground, as a pilot. He imagines that flying a plane would be like crowd surfing at a concert. “When you’re in the air nothing can stop you. It feels like your on top of the world literally cause you’re just so high and you can see everything and there nothing in the way up there,” he says. Feeling constrained, their dreams reach for freedom. Andre stays connected to his dream through the Internet. He watches the web stream of students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida training to fly. But he feels alone in his dream about becoming a pilot. As he sits on his bed near his laptop he laments, “no one is really mentoring me or helping me to get to that goal. It’s just me.”

His parents wish the best for him but do not have a lot of experience with attaining the advanced education needed to become a pilot. Andre’s stepfather did not go to college and is busy trying to help the family survive. His mother just wants him to graduate from high school and go to college. “They’re coming from a neighborhood where opportunities are easy to see when you’re at school. You have other folks that are trying to support you. When you see that and come back to a neighborhood where the environment is not so good, they loose sight of that,” Joe stepdad Joe laments. says.

The lack of support and social and cultural capital can leave children without the resources and information needed to thrive in American society. “You see it a lot in kids just giving up, they don’t understand exactly how the [environment] affects you, they just assume that I’m done with and that there is nowhere for them to go,” Janie says reflecting on the struggles that her children and their friends from East Austin face.

A child growing up in a community trapped in the cycle of incarceration is damaged in many visible ways. They are also hurt in psychological ways, including a low-self esteem. Judge Charlie Baird says that mass incarceration has had a devastating effect on the young men and women from poor African American communities that are the frontlines in America’s War on Drugs. “I think they sense that their value to our society is not great as it is for an Anglo child. I think it demeans them, I think it demoralizes them and I think that their attitude rather than saying I’m going to prove society wrong, could be just to capitulate to what society expects” he says.

Their American Dream denied, they have low expectations for themselves and even less for their community. This lost generation of young people is being targeted for failure before they can even get a start in the world.

The Browns, Part 3

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A personal choice

From her couch, Beverly again looks out the window. She says the image of a rock rolling down a hill comes to her mind. “It is just like [with] each roll the problem gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” she says with a loud clap of her hand. “More and more families are being affected, I mean even the distinguished black families in the community are being touched [by mass incarceration].”

Beverly’s eyes move back up to her wall of memories and they express the sadness and helplessness at what has happened to her family.

“I watched my mother die praying for God to let her live to see a drug and alcohol free generation that would not be going in and out of jails and prisons. Needless to say, it did not happen. So then I took up her prayer, while I’m 64-years-old now so. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I don’t think I’m going to live to see it either,” she says.

After observing her community for so long, Beverly senses that there is something more happening and that it’s more than a “generational curse.” What she has not been fully able to pinpoint is the reason that her family and community have felt the impact of the criminal justice system so intensely. Perkinson writes that mass incarceration has little to do with crime prevention and is actually rooted in America’s historical racial conflict. “State punishment has consistently served purposes beyond crime control. Indeed, the strong-arm of the law has been regularly deployed not only to protect public safety but to preserve privilege, bolster political fortunes, and, most of all, to discipline those on the social margins, especially African Americans,” he wrote.

She believes that a person has to want to change and that the blame for the poor state of the black community in East Austin should fall on the individuals who live there. It has not been easy. Trying to keep her family together has been stressful for Beverly and it has created some resentful feelings toward her brothers and children, especially the men. “One thing that I have to deal with on a regular basis is that to a degree, I stay mad at them. Because I don’t understand why they can’t want for themselves what I want for them so bad,” Beverly says.

Beverly disagrees with the “blame the white man” explanation for the state of East Austin’s African-American community. She acknowledges the negative impact of the War on Drugs,, but she also believes that the community should develop its solutions and not rely on others to fix the problems. “I don’t even look at it as being about black and white. It’s about what we are doing to ourselves and of course nobody’s going to try to stop us,” she says. But it is not that simple in Beverly’s mind. “From a certain point you have to believe that they pick who they want to arrest,” she says.

Last year Beverly’s brother John was released from prison after 15 years. John, who had lost access to medication for a bi-polar disorder after being released, was in trouble again four weeks later. “To me they shouldn’t have just turned him loose. The whole world was different. He didn’t have a job or a driver’s license. He didn’t have nothing,” she stresses. Now he is facing a 10-year term for robbery. “I know that there are things that wasn’t offered to him that if he lived on the other side of town he would have gotten,” she says.

Alexander presents a more nuanced view of personal responsibility and mass incarceration. She says that the belief held by many people, including the Browns, is that African Americans choose to be criminals and that the War on Drugs did not turn them into criminals the same way that slavery and Jim Crow turned blacks into second class citizens.

“The myth of choice here is seductive, but it should be resisted. African- Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct,” she wrote.

Beverly points at a photograph on her wall that holds special significance. A row of black people wearing suits and dresses stare out from this old and fading black and white photograph. “Those are the some of the original members who started my church,” she says.

Beverly has attended Rock Quarry Missionary Baptist Church all of her life. Her great-grandfather, William McKinnely Walker, a freed slave, help found the church 135 years ago. Members of her family have attended ever since. In Rock Quarry’s auxiliary building, a group gathered to share a holiday dinner.

Four generations of women from Beverly’s family, Bebe, Marquis, and Raven, 9, talk over a table covered in a red plaid-patterned tablecloth. Marquis hands Beverly an iPod ear bud and they listen to music together. Volunteers prepare full plates of brisket, ribs, baked beans and potato salad, in the kitchen area. Before the food is served everyone bows their heads for prayer.

Three times, Beverly had tried unsuccessfully to break her addiction to drugs. “You can’t do it alone,” her mother told her. Rock Quarry’s Missionary society helped her when she was in need. The group was made up of older Christian women from her church. Whenever she needed emotional support, Beverly could call them anytime of day. Her church and her faith have played a central role in her life and remain one of the primary reasons she was successful in breaking her addiction to drugs.

Read the first chapters Part 1 and Part 2

The Browns, Part 2

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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.

Extended Parenthood

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.”

Read the next chapters Part 1 and Part 3

The Browns, Part 1

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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.

 The Homestead

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.

 

Read the next chapters Part 2 and Part 3