Friday, March 29, 2013

On the prison-segregation cycle and the wish for solutions

Posted By on 03.29.13 at 08:51 AM

The Menard Correctional Center in downstate Chester. The path between poor, black neighborhoods and prison is well worn.
  • AP Photo/The Southern/Paul Newton
  • The Menard Correctional Center in downstate Chester. The path between poor, black neighborhoods and prison is well worn.
I wrote yesterday about questions WBEZ reporter Rob Wildeboer has been trying to ask Governor Quinn about prisons—questions about crowding, health care, and the lack of rehabilitative programs.

As Wildeboer noted in one of his stories this week, 33,000 prisoners are released from Illinois’s penitentiaries every year. (The prison population, now 49,000, is constantly replenished.) Each newly-minted ex-offender gets $10, and, if no relative or friend is willing to pick him up, a bus or train ticket home.

Home is often the poor, black neighborhoods the ex-offender left. A disproportionate number come from, and return to, Englewood and West Englewood, Greater Grand Boulevard, Woodlawn, Roseland, West and East Garfield Park, North Lawndale, and Austin.

This concentration of ex-offenders is hard for the ex-offenders, and hard for their neighborhoods.

“Disadvantaged communities are more likely to be highly incarcerated communities, which increases their likelihood of becoming even more disadvantaged in the future,” Harvard sociologists Robert Sampson and Charles Loeffler observed in 2010 in the journal Daedalus. Segregation and incarceration combine to form “a self-reinforcing cycle that keeps some communities trapped in a negative feedback loop.”

Barring some new policy, the sociologists wrote, “a subset of communities will continue to produce concentrated disadvantage, concentrated crime, and concentrated imprisonment.”

So that's the problem. What's the answer?

I wish I knew.

Those of you who've been reading me for awhile know that I think desegregation is part of the solution to tenacious problems like this one. We need to spend more on the people living in high-poverty neighborhoods—but I think we should at the same time be working towards deconcentrating the poverty, with programs that foster integration.

But how do we foster integration? Often what I feel about that, again, is: I wish I knew.

There's an ingrained belief that journalism is a kind of call-and-response, with the journalist doing both: here's the problem, here's the answer.

That may work with simpler challenges. But when it comes to our thorniest social problems, I think most journalists—or people of any profession—aren't smart enough to do both very well. I'm certainly not. And when we strain to propose solutions, we often aren't helping. It can be just another negative-feedback loop. We make readers focus too much on our proposals when they should be developing their own fresh ideas.

A corollary to the call-and-response belief about journalism is: don't mention a problem if you don't know the answer.

But that's like saying a doctor shouldn't diagnose an illness she herself can't treat.

The cantankerous critic H. L. Mencken touched on this in "The Cult of Hope", an essay he wrote around 1920. "Of all the sentimental errors that reign and rage in this incomparable Republic," Mencken said, "the worst is that which confuses the function of criticism, whether aesthetic, political or social, with the function of reform. Almost invariably it takes the form of a protest: 'The fellow condemns without offering anything better. Why tear down without building up?'...It is impossible to get an audience for an idea that is not 'constructive'—i.e., that is not glib, and uplifting, and full of hope....The way to please is to proclaim in a confident manner, not what is true, but what is merely comforting."

I don't believe, as Mencken sometimes seemed to, that our toughest problems can't be solved. I've offered ideas about how we can move towards a more integrated Chicago area, and I'll continue to do so. But a journalist's job isn't to comfort. Sometimes it's simply to say, "Here's what needs fixing." And if solutions to segregation are to be found, readers will play a leading role.

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