Reporter's Notebook

Debating Mass Incarceration
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Below is all our discussion related to the October 2015 cover storyThe Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” For a back-and-forth between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, go here. For TNC’s rebuttal to National Review’s Kay Hymowitz, go here. If you’d like to contribute, email

Show 8 Newer Notes

What Does Rehabilitation Look Like for Lifers?

That’s the question tackled by this short documentary on Angola prison:

A reader adds:

I was struck by the video Jeff Goldberg did on Angola prison and how it fit into the broader discussion he had with TNC about mass incarceration. Seeking to learn more about the prison, about which I knew little, I happened upon a book by one of its most famous prisoners, Wilbert Rideau: In the Place of Justice. The story is a chronicle of Rideau’s time at Angola, his role as editor of the prison newspaper, and his eventual release. It is also one man’s chronicle of Angola, and the changes it underwent during his time there (early ‘70s until early 2000s).

The book is well-written and harrowing. It is relevant to the debate on many levels, but the one most germane to the exchange between TNC and Goldberg is Rideau’s description of the tenure of Burl Cain.

A reader, Allene Swienckowski, shares an outlook similar to Thabiti Anyabwile, the Anacostia pastor we heard from earlier:

As a marginally educated black woman, several decades older than Mr. Coates, I disagree with his written and stated identification of what it means and feels like to him to be black in America today. His stringent and unabated hopelessness about the futures of blacks in America is not reflective of every black person in this country. 

Without a doubt, there are oppressive elements to being black in America that have and do negatively affect the lives of black folks, such as high arrest numbers for minor offenses, mass incarceration, high unemployment, depressed opportunities in the inner cities, etc, etc.  And I am completely aware of my family’s history in this country, having met a great-grandmother who had been a slave. As a child, my father danced for quarters on the street and my mother and grandmother cleaned white folks’ houses.

But this legacy of living black in America did not wrest away my hope for the future.

A reader mentioned something I think is really worth expanding on. He initially shared the sentiments of these readers who lacked any sympathy for the central subject of TNC’s cover story, Odell Newton, who murdered a cab driver at age 16. But then the reader noted a line from an interview Ta-Nehisi did with Ezra Klein:

“Odell Newton, who is in jail for murder, and also nearly died from severe lead poisoning when he was 4.”

That changes things a bit. I’m not sure how bad the damage to Mr. Newton was, but given that he nearly died from lead poisoning, I’m sure it wasn’t nothing. How much of a mitigating factor that is, I don’t know, but it is something for which an accounting should be made. Where I’m from, mental deficits are mitigating factors, even for murderers.

We debated that last point previously in Notes here and here. Ta-Nehisi mentions in his piece how Newton’s lead poisoning almost killed him at age four, and how Newton’s repeated failures to get a G.E.D. probably stemmed from that poisoning, which is proven to cause cognitive and behavioral problems. And Ta-Nehisi notes the racial disparities:

A lawyer who handled more than 4,000 lead-poisoning cases across three decades recently described his client list to The Washington Post: “Nearly 99.9 percent of my clients were black.”

But that’s about it; Ta-Nehisi doesn’t explicitly mention the credible theory that lead poisoning is partly responsible for the spike in violent crime and incarceration of black Americans starting in the 1960s, before the U.S. government in the late 1970s banned the use of lead paint and severely restricted leaded gasoline. One of the most vocal advocates for the lead/crime theory is Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum. Here’s a concise summary from Drum:

Both gasoline lead and lead paint were most prevalent in the postwar era in the inner core of big cities, the former because that’s where cars were densest and the latter because slumlords had little incentive to clean up old buildings. Because African-Americans were disproportionately represented in inner-city populations during the high-lead era, they were disproportionately exposed to lead as children. The result was higher rates of violent crime when black kids grew up in the 70s and 80s.

And from a deep investigation by Drum that became a cover story:

An African American psychiatrist, mother, and Atlantic reader emails a nuanced perspective on the themes of gender and family we’ve discussed thus far:

The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” is a beautifully written, timely piece about the tragedy of mass incarceration that is affecting the fabric of our society—and that, as Coates eloquently argues, is steeped in racist fear. He weaves Moynihan into it all, and discusses how this frequently misunderstood figure and his thoughts on family intersected with the plight of black folk over the past half century.  This is actually the larger theme. Beyond mass incarceration, Coates’ article is really about an even greater issue; the article might have well been entitled “Why Is the Black Family Suffering Today, and What Can We Do About It?”

I wholeheartedly agree with many of the responses I imagine Coates would give: The black family is suffering because of a legacy of white supremacy. Mass incarceration is a crisis of epic proportions, which is a culmination of centuries of racist policy and has exacerbated the problems of the black family a thousand-fold.

However, as I read Coates closely, a small but important-to-me issue keeps coming up: I’m not sure how important he thinks the black family really is. Black individuals, yes. As an ardent defender of our personhood, our worth, and value, he is a welcome voice. But the black family? I get the sense that Coates may be just a little suspicious of the whole concept of family, or at least the traditionally crafted version. I’d like to argue that he shouldn’t be.

Atlantic reader Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College and wrote American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, emails a long and comprehensive defense of Moynihan:

Ta-Nehisi Coates in his cover story makes a powerful case against what he calls the “carceral state” but virtually none linking his foil—Daniel Patrick Moynihan—to it.  Coates neither claims Moynihan’s 1965 report on the African-American family was responsible for subsequent incarceration policies nor accuses Moynihan of orchestrating them.  Instead, he locates one issue aside the other, inviting, all but goading, the reader to draw the causal inference he does not explicitly make.  Coates implies.  He generalizes.  He kneads anecdotes into impressions.  In short, Coates does to Moynihan what he falsely accuses Moynihan of doing to the African-American family.  

This irony is compounded by the fact that Moynihan preceded Coates to this criticism of incarceration policy.  His 1993 essay “Defining Deviancy Down” warned that “[w]e are building new prisons at a prodigious rate” and that there was “something of a competition in Congress to think up new offenses for which the death penalty seemed the only available deterrent.”  He fought tirelessly for treatment over criminalization at the height of the incarceration craze, including authoring a 1988 law on the subject.  

On some points, Coates is simply mistaken.  

As part of our related coverage of mass incarceration, Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, wrote a piece for us last week that contends, “Every conversation about resources in the United States is also about race and racism.” Tyler Lane, an Atlantic reader in Melbourne, Australia, offers his stats expertise to address Cottom’s comments on the rise of violent crime in several cities over the past year:

A bit on my background: I hold an DPhil (PhD) from the Oxford, for which I spent a year and a half in South Africa researching the association between child labour/responsibility and familial illness, primarily HIV/AIDS. I’m not a criminologist, but I worked as an Assistant Statistician in the Ministry of Justice in London between completing my doctorate and moving to Australia. My expertise is quantitative social science and I am currently employed as a research data analyst.

My main issue with Dr Cottom’s piece is that her arguments—that racism drives everything, especially conversations about crime—strive to keep their distance from evidence of criminality in black communities. When she does engage with the data, it seems she does her best to obscure it. For instance, this quote from her on the “Ferguson Effect”:

Waves in the bathtub aren’t even that simple to explain, much less crime waves. No one with any serious training in data, statistics, and crime attributes isolated crimes to a national trend armed with only nine months of data.

Here’s the issue with that:

Odell Newton, in framed photographs (Greg Kahn)

A reader touches on several themes of TNC’s cover story:

The essay is indeed long, with a lot to chew on. One thing that struck me is the lack of input from families suffering from having a loved one murdered by a previously violent criminal who was released after a 5 or 10 year sentence, or who was never imprisoned despite a life of criminal violence. Such an omission is nearly always the case when dealing with this topic from the perspective of the suffering families of those imprisoned for life.

If someone wishes to make the argument that violent offenders, once they get into their 60s, have almost always aged out of their violent tendencies, that’s a debate worth having. But to simply ignore the percentage of murders that are committed by people who are younger than that, who have a previous history of engaging in felonious violence, is, well, incomplete. I’d suggest that without that examination, this topic can't be addressed in an intellectually rigorous fashion.  

Secondly, while it may be true that criminality—as wrongly and loosely as that label is deployed by the state—is directly correlated with material deprivation, it is simply not true that murder is directly correlated with material deprivation. I think we can agree that the percentage of Americans who were materially deprived in 1930 was significantly higher than the percentage in 1990. Despite that, murder peak of 1930 was less than that of 1990:

There is much that cannot be disputed in Coates’s essay. The War on Drugs has been a corrupt, abject, disaster from the beginning, and it is contemptible that the people who have voted for expanding the prison industrial complex have also mostly thought it acceptable that prisons are not operated as lawful environments.

Another reader responds to the previous ones who expressed no sympathy for Odell Newton, the central character in TNC’s essay who’s serving a life sentence for killing a cab driver:

It’s responses like the ones from your two readers that temper my hope for criminal justice reform. They probably wouldn’t admit it, but the main purpose of our justice system as it currently exists is vengeance.

We asked Thabiti Anyabwile, the lead pastor at Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C., to respond to our new cover story, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Anyabwile begins with high praise for the essay: “With skill, insight, and bite, Coates seems dedicated to reviving and reframing a conversation in the U.S. about reparations and long overdue justice for African Americans.” He then scrutinizes the essay at length, with nuance and grace, centering on the “lack of hope” in TNC’s writing:

Both solution sharing and respectability require some measure of hope. You get neither with despair or cynicism.

Hope was beneath the respectable Sunday-best attire worn to civil-rights marches. Hope was undergirding calls for respectable self control among sit-in demonstrators while being inhumanely sprayed with condiments at lunch counters. ... In the fight against the new slavery of mass incarceration, communities need the kind of hope whose back licked up flesh-splitting whips and dared dream of freedom anyway; the kind of hope that defied two centuries of educational oppression and disenfranchisement to elect black politicians in Reconstruction and establish institutions of higher learning; the kind of hope that managed to hold heads up high even when Jim Crow posted signs of white supremacy at every water fountain and public entrance; the kind of hope that marched all over U.S. cities for equal rights, full enfranchisement and integration ...

To get a better sense of where Anyabwile is coming from, check out his blog at The Gospel Coalition. In a comprehensive post back in March, he wondered, “How deep are the roots of racism?”

I think what we name things has meaning. I also think that much of the vocabulary employed in the world of policy, activism, and the academy should be spurned by writers. I am deeply sympathetic to the authors of the phrase “School To Prison Pipeline,” but it’s not a phrase I can ever use. “School To Prison Pipeline” is a phrase that causes lightbulbs to go off among people who are already skeptical of state and institutional power. But my job, as a writer, is to explain as clearly as possible, and avoid language that assumes agreement.

This is not a favor to those I disagree with. It is an essential step in the quest to be able to explain, with detail and nuance, the world around me. Of course, I fail at that all the time. Brevity and clarity are sometimes at odds—but the writer strives for both. In that vein, if you ever catch me earnestly employing the phrase “white privilege” or telling someone to “admit their privilege,” take away the keyboard. It’s over for me.

Indeed, if I’d had my druthers, I would not have used the word “mass incarceration” in my latest piece.

Below is a short Atlantic doc profiling the family of Odell Newton, who in 1973 killed a Baltimore cab driver during an attempted robbery and subsequently got a life sentence, which he’s still serving:

A reader writes:

My heart goes out the lady in the video.

But my heart also goes out to the family of the man her son murdered. His mother gets no letters or cards. There is no reprieve for him. No stories of the difficulty in visiting his grave. No stories about hard it’s been for them. No heartbreaking videos of their pain and suffering.

Unless and until people start treating the suffering of the victims and their families with the same degree of care and consideration as they do the victimizers, they will be unable to change many hearts and minds.

Another reader:

Also, a “mistake”? No. It was murder. When you kill an innocent person working a hard job to provide for his or her family, you do not get a “second chance.” Life in prison is what you deserve. Justice was, and continues to be, served in this case.

Your thoughts? Email

My piece on mass incarceration is long. I wish it wasn’t but it is. Believe it or not it was once even longer. The first draft clocked in around 19k and then ballooned in edits to 21k, before shrinking down to a svelte 17k. (I think that’s where we ended up .) Like James Bennet, I tend to cringe a little when people praise things I write for being “long.” I’m a Gza guy:

To many songs, weak rhymes that’s mad long
Make it brief son, half short and twice strong

Still working on that. My brilliant editor Scott Stossel helped me lose a lot of fat, but I think next month I’ll send him some haiku.

Still,  there is one thing I would have liked to have said more about. I had a rather lengthy section toward the end on the intellectual roots of the Moynihan report. I am going to reproduce those paragraphs here. These were neither fact-checked, nor copy-edited. It’s just “the raw.” I’m reproducing it this way for two reasons:

1.) I think it’s good for young writers, and even readers, to have some idea of what a first draft looks like. (In my case, it looks a lot like my blogging.) I think it’s important that people know that there is no magic in writing. It’s just pushing words.

2.) Had “Notes” existed at the time, I likely would have written something like this. It’s a redo for me. I think it’s cool to have an unedited record of how something strikes you.

To my mind, The Moynihan Report is rooted in some really ugly assumptions in mid-20th century sociology and psychology about black people in general and black women in particular. The book that helped me process this, more than any other, is Daryl Michael Scott’s Contempt and Pity. I wish I could have said more about this theme, and that book, in the original piece.

But without further adieu, here we go:

A reader comments on the annotated March 1965 report that TNC points to above:

Among other occupations, Moynihan was an academic. His seminal work strikes me as being a way to establish his bona fides in the academic world, and unquestionably he was successful. At the time Moynihan, was a well-known figure in a cottage industry filled with recently minted academics; [I’ve] never thought this group added much to the debates of the time, and less so today. … Essentially, Moynihan’s work was a gambit to have a seat at a table that had no open chairs.

But another reader “couldn’t disagree more,” pointing to a little-known memo our editors just unearthed—a May 4, 1964 memo from Moynihan offering LBJ policy prescriptions related to his upcoming report:

Almost every point made in that Moynihan memo is right on and current today. The clarity of the message is a stark contrast to the muddled, finger-pointing, self-satisfied BS that passes for policy analysis today.

Read it for yourself here. And here is one more supplementary document—an April 20, 1964 memo from Moynihan to the U.S. labor secretary making the case for more aggressive action on behalf of black Americans, nearly a full year before the Moynihan report was complete.

TNC’s cover story is here. Much more debate and discussion to come, via