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Black Male Incarceration and the Environment

Categories: GIS, Midd Blogosphere

Keith Reeves chats with a student before his talk.

Keith W. Reeves, a public policy expert from Swarthmore College, was at Middlebury for two days as the guest of the Howard E. Woodin Environmental Studies Colloquium and the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Reeves grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial city just outside Philadelphia, and opened his talk on “The Problem of Proximity: Black Male Incarceration and the Urban Environment” with a touch of irony.  Chester was highly regarded for generations as the city where Martin Luther King Jr. attended Crozer Theological Seminary in the early 1950s, and yet today it is known for the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Chester that opened in 1998 and houses thousands of black male prisoners, Reeves said.

Chester’s transition from a “major, bustling economic engine” of the mid-20th century to an impoverished city of crime and empty storefronts has Reeves, an associate professor, “worried, stressed, and struggling for years.” The decline of Chester, he said, was a key factor in his decision to leave the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1999 and accept an appointment in the political science department at Swarthmore. Now that he teaches just five miles from downtown Chester, he directs a number of Swarthmore-based initiatives—including his own research that combines department of corrections statistics with GIS mapping—to revitalize his home city.

Keith Reeves spoke rapid fire for 45 minutes on October 13 to a crowd of about 75 students, faculty, and staff gathered in The Orchard at Franklin Environmental Center.

He said, “Incarceration in the urban environment has grown to the point that it now produces the very social problems on which it feeds, which also explains the enormous recidivism rate we see in these communities.”

Black males returning home from prison today face the same problems and challenges that caused them to be in jail in the first place, he said. “Neighborhoods plagued by family trauma, stress, high drop-out rates, interpersonal violence, drug and alcohol abuse, drug dealing, gangs, hunger, and social isolation provide a context that puts [black males] on a trajectory in which they are making very problematic decisions” that lead to arrest, conviction, and re-incarceration.

To start reversing this trend in American society would cost $17 billion dollars a year, Reeves estimated. He advocates for national policy reforms that would: 1) reverse the high drop-out rate in urban areas, 2) create a dependable “job engine” in America, 3) reduce the number of prison admissions annually, 4) reduce prisoners’ length of stay, 5) provide effective mentoring, case management, and support services to ex-convicts, 6) “ban the box,” and 7) make military service a viable option for Americans who have served time in prison.

Reeves’s campaign to “ban the box” seeks to eliminate the check box on job applications that asks, “Have you ever been arrested or served time in prison?” That question creates “a barrier that often prevents a wonderfully bright guy from getting connected to work [because he] happened to have made a serious error in misjudgment that landed him in prison.”

The guest lecturer’s final point about offering military service to convicted felons is a source of controversy among his Swarthmore students. “My students hate this,” he said, “but I refuse to put it away. We should allow the military to recruit formerly incarcerated black males.” Reeves (left) advocates for this because, in his interviews with incarcerated black males, between one-third and one-half of them say they would join the military upon release from prison if the option were open to them.

“The military would have saved them from the streets,” Reeves believes. “It would have given them a bit of discipline, it would have given them an opportunity for education, it would have given them a chance to work and aim toward something bigger than themselves. And we also know from African-American history, that the military is an enormous avenue for social mobility, i.e., Colin Powell.”

While Reeves’ first book focused on racial politics in America, his second book—not yet published—called “The Declining Significance of Black Males” will examine the “alarming” incarceration rate among black men and the impact of their return on inner-city families and neighborhoods.

In the Q&A that followed his talk, a student asked Reeves to define the target audience for his current research and impending book. “I am trying to get to the policy makers. I am trying to get to the governors who make appointments to judicial and correctional facility commissions. And I am trying to put a human face on the problem of black male incarceration and prisoner re-entry [because] not everyone who commits a crime is evil.”

Black males are going to prison, Reeves said, because they grow up in an environment where crime is the norm, where family support is minimal, where schools are lacking, where there’s no access to health care, and where peers and family members are part of the criminal justice system too.

“I have been blessed with wonderful educational opportunities, so I have to do something to change the world in my space.” For Keith Reeves, who has a PhD from Michigan, his “space” is Chester and all the other cities in America where black male incarceration is a fact of life today.