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Jail a hidden toll on city’s blacks

Study examines impact of imprisonment on 3 communities

Incarceration is creating a social and economic crisis in Boston’s black community, leaving families without breadwinners, creating single-parent households, and depressing incomes, according to a survey by the Center for Church and Prison, a Dorchester research and resource center.

Families, the report found, must struggle to stay together under the weight of loss: the loss of financial stability, loss of family stability, loss of a sense of security.

The findings build on other research that identifies the disproportionate effect of the war on drugs on the black community and the emphasis in the criminal justice system on punishment, rather than rehabilitation.


“For a lot of people, the incarceration of a relative is a stigma, and they try to keep it” a secret, said the Rev. George M. Walters-Sleyon, the center’s founder and executive director. “They don’t want people to think, as parents, they did not raise their children properly.”

The survey will be discussed Tuesday night at a forum on the local impact of black male incarceration at Grace Church of All Nations in Dorchester.

Walters-Sleyon said the time has come to move beyond the stigma and marginalization to effectively deal with the crisis.

Blacks and Hispanics make up less than 20 percent of the state’s population but more than 55 percent of its prison population, according to the survey, which sought to use empirical data to illustrate the side effects of incarceration on Boston’s black community, he said.

It is not unusual for residents of Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester to know someone in prison and for the leading cause of imprisonment to be a nonviolent drug offense, according to the survey, which said families “found solace and guidance in religion as a means of coping.”

Conducted at 11 black churches in the Boston area between 2009 and 2010, the study explores the socioeconomic effects of incarceration, the nature of the crimes committed, and attitudes about ways churches can intervene.


Five hundred questionnaires were distributed during Sunday morning services, with 349 people responding to the 16-question survey, which focused on the three neighborhoods — Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester — that hold many of Massachusetts’s black residents.

The William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston analyzed the survey results for the Center for Church and Prison, which wrote the report, “Studies on Religion and Recidivism: Focus on Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan.”

According to the study:

■  54 percent of survey respondents said that at the time, they knew someone in jail.

■  28 percent of respondents said a relative behind bars had been the family’s primary breadwinner.

■  20 percent of respondents reported a reduction in the family’s income and standard of living because of a relative’s incarceration.

■  18 percent of respondents said a single-parent household resulted from an incarceration.

“Prevention, intervention, or reentry —it doesn’t concern the average person until they’re impacted by it themselves,” said the Rev. William E. Dickerson, pastor of Greater Love Tabernacle in Dorchester, which participated in the survey.

Dickerson said his church has been involved in helping former inmates reenter society and helping families cope while a loved one is in jail for more than 20 years. More than 95 percent “of the inmates are coming back to somebody’s communities, so it would make sense for us to make sure they come home whole and not fragmented.”


Plans for reentry, such as job training and searching for affordable housing, should begin the moment someone is imprisoned, Dickerson said. While some jails, such as those in Suffolk and Norfolk counties, have GED programs, parenting courses, and vocational classes, others are cutting such programs, Dickerson said.

Councilor Tito Jackson, who represents Roxbury on the Boston City Council, said the issue of addiction is not discussed nearly enough during conversations about criminal justice reform.

“Addiction is a very important factor in terms of why so many people are involved in crimes,” Jackson said. “This issue of addiction — and depression and trauma, these mental health issues that go untreated — oftentimes end up being treated in the most expensive and worst-prepared facilities, which are those of jail and prisons.”

The Center for Church and Prison’s study found that 45 percent of crimes committed by those incarcerated were drug offenses. The Suffolk sheriff’s office reports that about 42 percent of inmates have some form of mental illness.

When inmates are released, they face “huge challenges relative to housing, employment, and health care,” Jackson said. “Most of the housing programs that we have at the city, state, and at the federal level do not allow folks who have a felony on their record to take part in them.”

With hundreds of inmates being released and returning to Suffolk County each year, Jackson called this an “urgent issue,” which is why, he said, he is lobbying for creation of a reentry office at City Hall.


The office, he said, would serve as a single point of contact for all of the agencies — corrections, probation, social services, housing — that serve former inmates but operate separately.

“The result of an office like this in other municipalities has meant a full coordination of resources,” he said.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com.

Clarification: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized the effect of incarceration on households. Incarceration is creating single-parent households, according to the survey.