DeShawn Smith lived, for awhile, with her partner and two children in a good neighborhood in the Texas town of Beaumont. Her kids loved books and reading, and didn’t want summer time to come, because it meant the end of school. Then Smith’s partner went to jail, and everything changed.
Without his income, she could no longer afford the apartment in the nice part of town. She moved to a public-housing property in a highly-segregated neighborhood, next to a cement-crushing plant. The ceiling leaks and trains rattle by all night, and the bathtub is caked with mildew. Her daughter, who is now 8, hates her new school, and said her teacher confessed that she only came to school for a paycheck. The same teacher told Smith that her daughter was the only second-grader in the class who knew how to read.
Smith hates what the move has meant for her children and their education. But the old apartment was too expensive, and “I couldn’t afford it by myself anymore,” she told me, a few months ago, when I was in Beaumont.
America spends $80 billion a year incarcerating 2.4 million people. That money is spent on things like beds, staff, food, and facilities—but the effects of that incarceration are costly in other ways too, according to a new report out Tuesday from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. The report is a result of a yearlong project that collected information in 14 states through focus groups and surveys (My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates writes extensively about mass incarceration in his October cover story).
When a someone goes to prison, nearly 65 percent of families are suddenly unable to pay for basic needs such as food and housing, the report found. About 70 percent of those families are caring for children under the age of 18. Women like Smith are often responsible for court-related costs associated with the conviction, and many families go into debt to pay those fees, leaving even less for food and shelter. When that family member gets out of jail, their loved ones are left with the task of supporting their reentry. This burden is ongoing since people with a criminal record often are unable to find work upon their release.