Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” on Disproportionate Incarceration of Black Men

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Today NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” had a panel on the disproportionate incarceration of black men, featuring Charles Blow of the New York Times, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, poet Dwayne Betts, and Ohio State professor Michelle Alexander. It’s probably nothing readers of this blog don’t know, but nonetheless worth listening to — Alexander is always good at dismantling the canard that the caste system we’ve created can be chalked up to higher crime rates among blacks — and I wanted to highlight the remarks of Dwayne Betts, on both the hazards of incarcerating youth alongside adults and the difficulties of prisoner reentry:

Mr. BETTS: Well, I mean, for me, I was guilty, and I guess it’s hard for me talk about it just because I have to start the question by saying I have to start the answer by saying: When I was 16 years old, I was an honor student. I hadn’t been in trouble before. I never held a pistol, and I went out into a parking lot on a Saturday night, and I carjacked a man.

And I got arrested the next day and pled guilty, and I was sentenced to nine years in prison. And I served eight and a half years.

SEABROOK: Eight and a half years. And how old are you now?

Mr. BETTS: I’m 29.

SEABROOK: Twenty-nine. So how old were you when you got out?

Mr. BETTS: Twenty-four.

SEABROOK: What’s this do to your life when you go to prison?

Mr. BETTS: Well, I think it’s complicated because depending on who you are, when I went to prison, I became aware of the disproportionate number of black men in prison. And I became aware of how many of us had got ourselves in prison, but how many of us, at some level in the system, been railroaded or been treated differently than somebody who may have been white or of a different race.

And so I think what it did to me was it forced me to look at my life and look at the decisions that I made and the poor decisions that I made. And I recognized that I not only had to do something for myself but sort of try to make the public aware of the situation that they put people in, especially now that you have more and more young people being sent to prison with adults because I was 5’6″, 125 pounds, and the judge told me I’m under no illusion that sending you to prison will help.

So it was one of those situations in which I knew I had to do the time because I made a mistake, but I also knew that I was put in a situation where I was likely not to survive.

SEABROOK: Were you tried as an adult?

Mr. BETTS: Yes, I was tried as an adult.

SEABROOK: And sentenced as an adult.

Mr. BETTS: Yes.

SEABROOK: And what do you think re-entering, people re-entering society after doing these terms, what does this do to them, having been in prison?

Mr. BETTS: Well, it does, you know, a lot of things from you can’t live in certain communities, certain colleges and universities won’t allow you to attend their schools because you have a felony. Certainly employers won’t hire you because you have a felony.

And the thing is, and this is what I found in my own life, once you prove yourself, once you show that you have some kind of intelligence and some kind of skill to offer, people often make exceptions for you. But the problem is it’s hard to get that space.

I was given a job as an assistant manager at a bookstore, Karibu books in Bowie, Maryland, and then I was eventually the manager. And that was my opportunity to prove myself.

And from there, I was able to do a lot of amazing things, and I was able to get a full-tuition scholarship to Prince Georges Community Colleges. And from there, I was able to get a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Maryland. But even along the way, there were a lot of employers and a lot of places that wouldn’t give me the opportunity to prove myself.

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