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Doing Time on the Outside

Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America

Donald Braman

Publication Year: 2004

Stigma, shame and hardship---this is the lot shared by families whose young men have been swept into prison. Braman reveals the devastating toll mass incarceration takes on the parents, partners, and children left behind. -Katherine S. Newman "Doing Time on the Outside brings to life in a compelling way the human drama, and tragedy, of our incarceration policies. Donald Braman documents the profound economic and social consequences of the American policy of massive imprisonment of young African American males. He shows us the link between the broad-scale policy changes of recent decades and the isolation and stigma that these bring to family members who have a loved one in prison. If we want to understand fully the impact of current criminal justice policies, this book should be required reading." -Mark Mauer, Assistant Director, The Sentencing Project "Through compelling stories and thoughtful analysis, this book describes how our nation's punishment policies have caused incalculable damage to the fabric of family and community life. Anyone concerned about the future of urban America should read this book." -Jeremy Travis, The Urban Institute In the tradition of Elijah Anderson's Code of the Street and Katherine Newman's No Shame in My Game, this startling new ethnography by Donald Braman uncovers the other side of the incarceration saga: the little-told story of the effects of imprisonment on the prisoners' families. Since 1970 the incarceration rate in the United States has more than tripled, and in many cities-urban centers such as Washington, D.C.-it has increased over five-fold. Today, one out of every ten adult black men in the District is in prison and three out of every four can expect to spend some time behind bars. But the numbers don't reveal what it's like for the children, wives, and parents of prisoners, or the subtle and not-so-subtle effects mass incarceration is having on life in the inner city. Author Donald Braman shows that those doing time on the inside are having a ripple effect on the outside-reaching deep into the family and community life of urban America. Braman gives us the personal stories of what happens to the families and communities that prisoners are taken from and return to. Carefully documenting the effects of incarceration on the material and emotional lives of families, this groundbreaking ethnography reveals how criminal justice policies are furthering rather than abating the problem of social disorder. Braman also delivers a number of genuinely new arguments. Among these is the compelling assertion that incarceration is holding offenders unaccountable to victims, communities, and families. The author gives the first detailed account of incarceration's corrosive effect on social capital in the inner city and describes in poignant detail how the stigma of prison pits family and community members against one another. Drawing on a series of powerful family portraits supported by extensive empirical data, Braman shines a light on the darker side of a system that is failing the very families and communities it seeks to protect.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

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pp. 1-11

When Davida was born, her father, David, was seventeen and serving his first adult sentence on a drug conviction.* A small-time drug dealer in Washington, D.C., he has been in and out of prison for his daughter’s entire life. For all the anger and disappointment that come with having a...

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Two elderly women have come to blows. As they shove and wrestle, scuffling across the hard floor of the District government office building, they are yelling at each other. “That’s my grandson you’re talking about! Don’t you talk about my grandson that way!” shouts one. “You love him so much...

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Chapter 1. A Public Debate

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pp. 15-19

This strange public demonstration took place early in my fieldwork and provided a striking introduction to both local city politics and the increasingly complex politics of incarceration. It was followed by five public hearings,1 the last two of which were open for comments from the general public. But even at the first hearing, the divergent perspectives within the community...

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Chapter 2. “It’s a Mess What’s Happened”

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pp. 20-22

Londa lives in the center of Washington, D.C., in a twenty-year-old housing project.* The project is one of the more modern in the District, spreading inhabitants out in a series of squat cement row houses. Her street is a small loop off of a main thoroughfare, and there is no traffic except for the cars of those living in or visiting the project. Kids and the occasional grown man ride bikes...

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Chapter 3. The Creation of the Ghetto

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pp. 23-29

In 1870, as freedmen were participating in their first local elections in the nation’s capital, Frederick Douglass, like many blacks in the District, was celebrating newfound suffrage: “The ideas of progress, of self-dependence, and self-government,” he wrote, “have taken root and are flourishing among our people. Each feels that he is a part of, and has an interest in, the welfare...

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Chapter 4. Incarceration as a Response to Public Disorder

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pp. 30-35

As families living in America’s inner cities began to buckle under the weight of the shifts in policy and the economy, those outside its neighborhoods appeared blithely unaware. What many saw instead were minorities moving in, property values going down, businesses pulling out, and, perhaps most symbolically...

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pp. 37-39

Brenda and her sister, Janet, moved back into their childhood home after their father passed away. It was a large, sprawling house, far too large for their mother alone, with plenty of space for them and their children. Their mother had encouraged the move, saying that she needed their help, but in truth she knew that she was helping them at least as much as they...

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Chapter 5. On the Ropes: Londa & Derek

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pp. 41-64

Brenda’s sister-in-law, Londa, is a mother of three. She broke her ankle a few weeks before we met and, worried about the impression the disarray in her apartment will give, she is quick to apologize about the mess. But, with her ankle broken and her husband, Derek, gone, she has trouble keeping the place as clean...

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Chapter 6. Falling Apart: Thelma & David

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pp. 65-88

Thelma is sixty-two. While she never married, she had five children by a man who, though she doesn’t like to talk about it, had a wife and another family with whom he spent most of his time and on whom he spent nearly all of his money. Although the two families never spoke to one another, their long-term...

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Chapter 7. Pulling Families Apart

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pp. 89-96

When academics talk about families, they often talk about the harm that comes from familial disintegration. Many lament the lack of dedication to family they see in high rates of unwed mothers, absent fathers, and divorce. These debates take on a special tone when black families are the subject. Consider,...

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Accountability, a concept at the heart of get-tough sentencing reforms, has taken on a different meaning for Barbara. She lives in a small apartment in a housing project near the Maryland state line in Northeast Washington, D.C. Her nephew, Davone, violated the terms of his parole for a previous...

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Chapter 8. Arrested: Edwina & Kenny

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pp. 99-112

Edwina grew up in Alabama in the 1940s and 1950s, the daughter of a domestic worker and a factory hand. She recalls herself as a simple girl with simple parents, and most of her family agree, adding only that she hasn’t changed much. She married her high school sweetheart, but, she points out, “we didn’t really meet at school—it was at the church our families attended.” Fairly...

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Chapter 9. Doing Time: Lilly & Arthur

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pp. 113-134

Lilly is fifty-one. She was married with three children by the age of nineteen when her husband left her. A single parent without a high school education and functionally illiterate, she has worked as a beautician, a construction worker, a cook, a daycare provider, and at a host of other odd jobs to support...

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Chapter 10. Cycling through the System: Zelda & Clinton

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pp. 135-153

Clinton is one of thirteen children, although he is in regular contact with only two of his sisters and is close only to the younger, Zelda. He has one daughter, Janet, and is still close to her mother, Pat. Janet recently gave birth to a baby boy,...

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Chapter 11. Material and Social Consequences

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pp. 154-163

Many families of prisoners face significant obstacles in day-to-day life that are not directly related to incarceration. Many of the women I interviewed are, like Zelda, survivors of physical and sexual abuse, struggling against poverty and working hard to raise their children without much help. These are not troubles faced only by families of prisoners, but they are problems...

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pp. 165-167

The preceding chapters have described the difficulties that families of prisoners face. Their experiences are, one would think, more than enough to prompt many to protest a regime of criminal sanctions that punishes them along with criminal offenders. Yet, most told no one outside of the immediate...

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Chapter 12. Missing the Mark: Louisa & Robert

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pp. 169-175

The preceding chapters have described the difficulties that families of prisoners face. Their experiences are, one would think, more than enough to prompt many to protest a regime of criminal sanctions that punishes them along with criminal offenders. Yet, most told no one outside of the immediate...

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Chapter 13. Problems at Home: Constance & Jonathan

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pp. 177-187

Jonathan and Constance Smith have been married twenty years. They have six sons and live in a small house in a working-class section of Anacostia, in Southeast Washington. Anacostia is often described in general and unflattering terms.* Anyone who...

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Chapter 14. Work Worries: Tina & Dante

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pp. 188-194

Tina is raising her two daughters and two of her nieces after their mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She rents a small row house that’s part of a suburban public housing project just outside of the District. She is acutely aware of the value of education...

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Chapter 15. Depression and Isolation: Robin & Aaron

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pp. 195-199

Robin, who is thirty-four and has two daughters and a son, married her husband, Aaron, while he was incarcerated. He has a mandatory release date in four years and will come up for parole once before then. They met in elementary school, but their families knew each other before that. After she finished...

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Chapter 16. Coping: Murielle & Dale

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pp. 200-209

Although many of the family members who were closest to prisoners struggled with stigma, isolation, and depression, most had also developed ways to cope. In many cases, however, their coping repertoires were limited, typically characterized...

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Chapter 17. Faith and Church: Dolores & Lawrence

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pp. 210-218

Dolores’s son Lawrence has been incarcerated for four years, and, as she is quick to tell me, he is the first person in her immediate family to spend time in prison. Although she lives in what is generally considered to be a bad neighborhood near one of the oldest open-air drug markets in the District, her life...

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Chapter 18. Social Silence

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pp. 219-220

One often hears in policy circles that incarceration no longer works because inner-city communities are places where shame has no hold.1 One can only assume that most participants in these discussions have had little direct contact with the families or communities they are discussing. Stigma and incarceration...

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pp. 221-224

By employing incarceration—the bluntest of policy instruments—as the primary response to social disorder, policymakers have significantly missed the mark. The very laws intended to punish selfish behavior and to further common social interests have, in practice, strained and eroded the personal relationships...

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pp. 225-226

People are resilient, all the more so when they are part of caring families. The families in this book, for the most part, live on, making the stories I first wrote about them seem like the necessarily dated verbal snapshots they are. I continued to revise the accounts for some time, but finally I had to...

Appendix: Methodology and Data Sources

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pp. 227-230


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pp. 231-233


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pp. 235-265


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pp. 266-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780472021772
E-ISBN-10: 047202177X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472032693
Print-ISBN-10: 0472032690

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 20 drawings, 3 tables
Publication Year: 2004