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 14 Newer Notes

Should Vengeance Play Any Role in Incarceration?

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

The Atlantic’s new cover story, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” just dropped. It’s a sweeping essay from Ta-Nehisi Coates, with videos, photos, and annotations throughout, so you may want to settle into your favorite chair before reading. From the first section:

Our carceral state banishes American citizens to a gray wasteland far beyond the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens. Banishment continues long after one’s actual time behind bars has ended, making housing and employment hard to secure. And banishment was not simply a well-intended response to rising crime. It was the method by which we chose to address the problems that preoccupied Moynihan, problems resulting from “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment.” At a cost of $80 billion a year, American correctional facilities are a social-service program—providing health care, meals, and shelter for a whole class of people.

To listen to TNC narrate an illustrated intro to the essay, see our previous note. Above is another video illustrated by Jackie Lay, narrated this time by sociologist Bruce Western, quoted in the title of this note.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be airing all kinds of discussion and debate over TNC’s essay and a series of companion pieces, compiled here. Email your own contribution to and we’ll do our very best to feature it. (For an example of this approach, see our long reader debate over last month’s cover story on the new campus PC.)

For the rest of the October 2015 issue, go here. The Notes section will be covering its contents throughout the month.

Ta-Nehisi narrates an exceptionally well-done video by illustrator Jackie Lay:

TNC writes about the new video here. It’s pegged to his upcoming cover story about black incarceration, available online Monday night. Relatedly:

We're going to have a ton of reader debate and discussion aired in the coming weeks over TNC's cover story, so stay tuned. If you have any productive thoughts about the data presented in the Jackie Lay video and/or TNC's framing of it, email