The Nexus Between Concentrated Poverty And Prisons

Nexus between poverty and prison

I’ve shared five pieces that my penpal Lacino Hamilton wrote and sent me (this is the one I typed out at the beginning of this month) over the past year and a half, and this piece, fully titled “We Must Not Accept The Explanation of States: The Nexus Between Concentrated Poverty And Prisons” focuses on the way incarceration and overpolicing is systemically linked to poverty. He and I agree on essentially every issue, so if you want to read more of his published work, this is a link to his articles on Truthout. As always, I have not edited or changed any of his writing for this post.

For all the recent attention paid by activists, scholars, community organizers, and other free-world intellectuals to prison reform, few have paid attention to the most core economic and demographic characteristics of imprisoned men and women–concentrated poverty. And how this structure of violence has become fundamentally focused on containing, controlling, and preempting those who are by juridical definition and force of condition, irrelevant and alienated from mainstream social life.

Prison has, for the most part, historically been a “poor people thing.” I have been in Michigan prisons 26 years and never met a prisoner who is a millionaire, not even a hundred-thousandaire. However, since the early 2000s men and women entering Michigan prisons are not just poor, they are the poorest of the poor. I assume this holds true nationally.

This writing explores why this is by taking a look at the place Michigan prisoners come from most–inner city neighborhoods. An inherent limitation of such a look is a tendency to ignore the importance of men and women who live in suburbs and small towns prior to imprisonment. There is, nonetheless, a consistent and overarching conclusion that emerges from this partial analysis of Michigan inner cities, in particular Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Saginaw.

That is, multiple generations of men and women entering prison (I’m in prison, my father Lacino Sr. spent over 18 years in prison, as did his oldest and youngest brothers Keith and Michael, both my first cousins Andre and Gimere, and my youngest brother Kevin will have served 18 years by the time he is eligible for parole in 2025) have remained tied to places where opportunities for economic advancement have declined, where poverty has become increasingly concentrated, and where the risk of going to prison has become more prevalent than the hope of going to college, or even completing high school.

There are several potential explanations for this, which often overlap. One lies in the cumulative effect of the intersection of race, class, and gender. How these characteristics are often turned into liabilities that make it less likely that talents, ability, and aspirations will be recognized and rewarded, and more likely that some portion of those who fit into those categories as poor, black, and especially when they are poor, black and female (the fastest growing prison population), lives will be spent confined.

Another explanation lies in policies that have served to maintain residential segregation by income and by race, and to limit black upward mobility in the post civil rights period. Data from the U.S. Census and other sources shows that one of the most visible consequences of discriminatory race polices is the uneven distribution of jobs, wealth and income and all that goes with it, from decent housing and good schools to adequate health care. (1)

And we cannot analyze prison’s function of isolating the poorest of the poor, or the social ramifications of that isolation as distinct from historical context. While there are all sorts of caricatured political and media narratives about the poor, narratives how poverty is a choice, the overwhelming majority of poor are born into poverty–a political choice–or those thrust there by circumstances largely beyond their control.

For example, many blacks, prison’s majority clientele, have remained pinned within neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of five decades of economic restructuring and political disinvestment–removing basic protections, under funding education, hampering human capital formation, and saturating neighborhoods with police that look and act like military.

A 2017 International Monetary Fund report captured the situation, that the United States economy “is delivering a better living standards for only the few,” and that “household incomes are stagnating for a large share of the population, job opportunities are deteriorating, prospects for upward mobility are waning, and economic gains are increasingly accruing to those that are already wealthy.” (2) According to the National Bureau of Economic Research the U.S. now has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of any rich country. To prevent this we need to drastically change the way the economy is structured.

And yet, another explanation is what’s typically called and understood as “white flight.” Beginning around 1955, white flight is described as merely whites fleeing inner cities in large numbers for suburbs. But white flight was more than a change of address. It included the evaporation of inner city manufacturing base (jobs “relocated” to the suburbs too), leaving blacks and other minority populations that had relied on stable working-class job since the Great Migration, without an employment base, facilitating a decline in adequate and livable wages, and a myriad of related social problems that has come to characterize many inner cities in the post civil rights era.

At the same time whites were fleeing inner cities middle class blacks were “fleeing” too. A sort of black middle-class flight. Community institutions, for which the black middle-class disproportionately ran and operated, including the church and schools, deteriorated rapidly. The result was the poorest blacks with least education, no real property ownership, no real financial resources, and no real political influence were concentrated together, intensifying poverty and racial segregation.

It’s not just that poverty, lack of opportunities, and intensification of racial segregation was concentrated, but that they were passed down from generation to generation, growing in severity, and making them virtually inescapable. “Leaving it to the market to solve” has a pattern of poverty.

Today zip codes are reliable proxies for race and wealth, and tragically reliable predictors of a child’s probability of future imprisonment. Concentration of poverty is antithetical to democracy in the sense that it undermines political equality. it’s not just that rich people can pay off politicians or pay lobbyists; it’s that all decisions get made based on if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make social cents.

This has been driven in large part by a powerful class of business and political elites with an interest in promoting economic growth while avoiding the inevitable social fallout from the negative impact of the intergenerational transmission of having to scratch and claw for the means of survival. Thus, in my informed opinion, prisons are being used, at least in part, to disappear and make invisible what some economist and sociologist call, the permanent underclass.

This not only confirms prisons social function beyond retribution for transgressing the law, but it reveals a new, more subtle form of trying to prevent radical social change since historically it is the poorest of the poor with the most incentive to interrupt and change the patterns in the institutions and communities of which they are a part, and which influences their poverty.

Often business and political elites via state punishes and preempts the potential for social change through intimidation, police violence, and prisons. Thus, shifting the focus away from the quantifiable, deplorable way many people in this country live, and onto what might be called the essential audacity of the political nature of crime–who are they to bend the rules when they have been rigged against them?

That is to say, the nexus between concentrated poverty-state violence and prisons compels an alternate paradigmatic interpretation of inner cities. This nexus is precisely what remains under-reported in current anti-prison, prisoner support, and prison reform activism, as well as the emerging dismantle and abolish movement.

In plain terms, racism, capitalism, and economic displacement of globalization have created massive, and concentrated poverty. In this sense, the isolation and semi-permanent immobilization of the poorest of the poor is not simply repressive, but has actually reconfigured into a “socially productive” policy, generating and organizing an unprecedented site of rupture and alienation from society, mass-based civic death. It is disguised by language of law & order that suggest all of us–rich and poor and middle class–have a common interest, but the use of prisons on a scale the world has never before seen serves the needs of the wealthy and powerful.

This may not give a lot of people comfort that the economy and the state of the union is sound, but it may cause more people to look deeper than the glib explanations made by the State and its agents.

(1) World Income Inequality Database, available at

(2) IMF, “United States: staff report for the 2017 Article IV Consultation”, para 14.