Stolen Wealth, Hidden Power: The Case for Reparations for Mass Incarceration
By now, it is widely known that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Even after the forced reductions in correctional populations due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the statistics remain staggering: nearly 2 million people are currently held in prison or jail (Sawyer & Wagner, 2022). In addition, disproportionate numbers of those incarcerated are BIPOC individuals—i.e., black, indigenous, or other persons of color. When these individuals are released, they, and by extension, their families, are vulnerable to the harmful consequences of possessing a criminal record that is inextricably linked to their race and ethnicity. Distinguished scholars such as Michelle Alexander (2012), Bryan Stevenson (2012, 2015), Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015), and Elizabeth Hinton (2016) have correctly identified mass incarceration as the current vehicle by which a legacy of racial subjugation and violence continues in a country that refuses to fully acknowledge its history. Tasseli McKay, in her latest book, Stolen Wealth, Hidden Power: The Case for Reparations for Mass Incarceration, adds to this understanding by documenting the racialized harms of mass incarceration sustained by Black American (formerly) incarcerated individuals and their families. Taking a step further, she quantifies the magnitude of these damages to propose a plan for reparations.
While there have been other calls for reparations, McKay’s strategy stands apart for several reasons. First, it appeals for reparations beyond the realm of slavery. Remedies for the brutalities of slavery have historically been debated in reparations conversations and, though necessary, omit the post-emancipation racist atrocities that Black Americans have experienced and continue to experience. In recent years, growing attention has been given to reparations for injustices encountered after slavery (e.g., Coates, 2014). Still, often missing from such discussions is a consideration for redressing the harms of mass incarceration.
This idea, presented by McKay, is the second reason why her reparations plan is so unique. With a meticulous and comprehensive analysis of evidence, McKay crafts a compelling mass incarceration reparations program that could be the foundation for actual repair. Lastly, McKay’s plan is steeped in transitional justice, which she describes as transcending the idea of individual behavior accountability. Instead, demanding a “reckoning with collective and institutional acts…to bring justice for harms committed by entire populations and the systems of government they control” (p. 6). Since transitional justice is not embraced in the U.S., McKay turns to international models, including South Africa, Rwanda, and Nuremberg, which have achieved collective reckoning and reconciliation after past atrocities. Yet, she also offers a fresh take on the approach by assembling ample scholarly evidence, often lacking in other transitional justice initiatives. Ultimately, she produces an unparalleled outline of a transitional justice approach that can provide reparations for damages Black Americans suffer under mass incarceration.
To create this blueprint, McKay uses data from the Multi-site Family Study on Incarceration, Parenting and Partnering (MFS-IP) and relevant interdisciplinary research. The former data source was a mixed-methods study that occurred between 2006 to 2016 to evaluate the success of various federal demonstration programs in strengthening family relationships among men returning from prison. Individuals were eligible for this study if they self-reported being in a romantic or co-parenting relationship with a woman. From the larger pool of incarcerated men selected for recruitment, 1,482 couples were recruited and completed surveys at three points over three years. Following the survey collection, in-depth qualitative interviews were conducted with a subsample of 167 men who were near- or newly released from prison and their partners.
Given the often restricted access to prisons, the information gleaned from these data is commendable. Rarely can researchers follow individuals’ transition from prison to reentry to assess perceived differences in these experiences. Also unique is that the data examine the family dynamics of (formerly) incarcerated men over time. McKay acknowledges some flaws of the data, such that it lacks sufficient information on Latinx and indigenous groups who, like Black Americans, disproportionately face the most devastating effects of mass incarceration. Furthermore, due to the federal Defense of Marriage Act being in place when the demonstration projects were implemented, participants in the study comprised cisgender, heterosexual couples and not couples from LGBTQ communities. Notwithstanding these limitations, the results presented in this book stem from the most extensive, longitudinal dataset on returning citizens and their families available to date.
The breadth and richness of the data, coupled with McKay’s expert background in public health and social policy, allows her to provide an accounting of the harms of mass incarceration in various domains. Each of the book’s body chapters is devoted to one of these domains, which McKay describes as “the life-course consequences of mass incarceration” (p. 17). They include (1) the hypersurveillance, criminalization, and detention of Black children; (2) the perpetual adverse impact of imprisonment on reintegration and adult life outcomes; (3) the challenges family members, particularly women, encounter when a loved one is incarcerated; (4) the intergenerational effects of imprisonment on children of incarcerated parents; and (5) the pernicious consequences of mass incarceration on the health and well-being of targeted populations and communities.
McKay, with such scrupulous documentation, points to two key facts. First, collective support for the idea that people deserve punishment when they commit crimes is misguided. Instead, she asserts, criminal punishment is less about behavioral transgressions and more about the criminalization and social exclusion of BIPOC individuals. Second, the negative consequences that people encounter following imprisonment are not merely extra penalties for a person violating the law. In reality, most of the harm created by mass incarceration is inflicted on those not convicted of a crime — families and communities of formerly incarcerated citizens. These facts serve as the underpinnings for the book and justification for reparations for mass incarceration.
To begin with, McKay’s chapter (two) on the heavy surveillance and criminalization of Black children illustrates the ubiquity of mass incarceration. Long before people are even involved in the criminal justice system, the influence of the United States’ “hypercarceral regime” is felt (p. 11). A recurrent theme among male interviewees in the MFS-IP study was their trajectory to prison started with legal system contact in their early years. Importantly, this contact was not limited to a single event (e.g., one arrest), as commonly measured in quantitative studies on mass incarceration. Instead, these men had multiple routine experiences of being stopped, searched, picked up, arrested, convicted, and detained. Relatedly, for participants and members of poor communities of color in general, there is a persistent threat of exposure to the legal system. As youth, this exposure occurs through aggressive policing, exclusionary discipline and security practices in schools, adults and community programs adopting carceral practices to manage youth, and a legal system that adultifies children of color.
Together, these factors negatively shape the later life outcomes of BIPOC youth. A methodological strongpoint of McKay’s research is her ability to compare mixed-method findings. Quantitative results revealed that the men’s early experiences with criminalization and punishment had prolonged effects of posttraumatic stress and impaired social skills. Alternatively, qualitative findings suggested these experiences fundamentally altered the men’s development in navigating their lives and personal relationships.
As with system contact sustained during childhood and adolescence, McKay observed the men’s adult imprisonment experiences also carried lasting, adverse effects. In chapter 3, she discusses how time in prison undermines successful reintegration into the community. She also demonstrates two advantages of her methodology, in that it juxtaposes: (1) responses from male participants during and after incarceration with (2) responses between the men and their female partners. She finds that as the men approached release from prison, they were optimistic about their reentry. Specifically, they believed they would have positive reunifications with their partners and children, secure employment, and not return to prison. Their partners, however, had more moderate expectations of the men’s success, likely because of prior experiences in which the men faced hardships during reentry, which led to their return to prison. Indeed, these men had been incarcerated, on average, at least seven times over their lifetimes.
The post-prison results corroborated this prediction, as being in prison negatively affected the men’s physical and psychological well-being, relationships with loved ones, economic stability, and connections to institutional support systems. With such bleak outcomes, the men had little choice but to re-engage in the illegal economy (and its associated legal ramifications) or depend long-term on their already economically deprived families. In this plight, the men are situated in a “cycle of perpetual punishment” (p. 2).
Informed by the results about the continuous adversities men experience after prison, McKay presents how these hardships are absorbed into the lives of their intimate partners and children (chapters 4 and 5). She notes from prior research that women, particularly Black women, are overburdened by the responsibility of supporting their (formerly) incarcerated loved ones and maintaining their households in their partners’ absence. In this study, women were heavily depended on by their incarcerated partners for physical, emotional, and financial aid and their children’s care. While the women dedicated much effort to helping their mates, it was often at the expense of their well-being. For example, the women exhibited depressive symptoms and anger over their increased duties and the strains of managing financial pressures while raising their children independently. To be sure, both members of the couple recognized the men’s subtle ways of contributing, such as buying diapers for their children or fixing their partner’s car. Still, the women were stuck in a precarious state. They lacked stability because the possibility of their partner’s re-incarceration was always lurking around the corner.
Moreover, the women were frequently the recipients of their men’s frustrations over scarce resources during and after prison. The women’s suffering also transferred to their children. Though the data does not contain interviews with the couple’s children, both the men and women perceived their children are negatively affected by their father’s incarceration. They discussed how their children’s needs were sometimes unmet due to material deprivation and diminished access to external support systems. Furthermore, children, like their mothers, are worried about their father’s potential return to prison. Beyond the family, McKay reveals the collective effects of mass incarceration (chapter 6). Reviewing multiple bodies of evidence, she describes how over 40 years’ worth of mass incarceration has devastated Black communities economically, physically, and politically. It has also criminalized Black people in various spaces—e.g., the streets, school, or work—regardless of whether they have committed a crime.
After her exhaustive accounting, McKay sums up a whopping $13.19 trillion worth of damages owed to Black people for mass incarceration (chapter 7). In all the chapters, she precisely describes how this restitution can be expended. Her suggestions include instituting universal reentry programs, establishing unconditional and recurrent payment plans for affected families, and providing fair access to education and mental treatment services. Leading these efforts is a public apology and acknowledgment of the Black community’s total harm under mass incarceration. However, McKay cautions that this collective reckoning must be done in a way that avoids re-traumatization. Regarding whom is responsible for these reparations, McKay is clear—it is everyone who benefits from the state-sanctioned violence against Black people.
All in all, Stolen Wealth, Hidden Power is a phenomenal read for those in privilege and those in peril, though I would argue that the book is more required reading for the former. Black people are aware of the detriments they have suffered due to mass incarceration. It is time now for those in power, who historically have undermined reparative efforts, to take notice and take action.
Raven A. Lewis is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, Newark.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press rev. ed., 2012).
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.
Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (2016).
Wendy Sawyer & Pater Wagner, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, Prison Pol’y Initiative (March 14, 2022), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2022.html.
Bryan Stevenson, We Need to Talk About Injustice, TED (2012), https://www.ted.com/talks/bryan_stevenson_we_need_to_talk_about_an_injustice.
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2015).
Raven Lewis is a Ph.D Candidate at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice.