If we want to reconcile the socioeconomic consequences of mass incarceration, we can’t ignore the cyclical nature of the environments we’re sending formerly incarcerated individuals back into.
Those environments — produced by generations of marginalization — harness a nearly inescapable gravitational pull that victimize the people who live within them.
Just ask hip-hop artist Pusha T.
“[There are] real situations out here — and you’re listening to a rap artist who has sold a million records. And then I’ve sold no records. I’ve been on hiatus. I’ve been shelved by a label,” the Bronx rapper told local production house Media In Neighborhoods Group. “At the end of the day, man, I’ve had to do what I’ve had to do [to get by]. I’ve taken those risks during those times — and I’m the rapper with the face on TV.”
Despite his celebrity status, Pusha T has been a victim of that “pull of gravity” — the title of the 2013 MING documentary he appeared in.
“Let’s get into why the opportunity isn’t available for those who … have been rehabilitated by the system,” he said. When people leave jail and are on probation for several years, “why can’t that record clear up, too? Let’s get back into society the right way.”
That’s the intent behind Philadelphia’s new fair hiring law, recently amended to help more ex-offenders find employment by restricting employers from probing into criminal convictions that happened over seven years ago.
“It’s a great step forward,” said MING cofounder Jon Kaufman. “But there are still no jobs for people who didn’t have a record. There are very minimal job opportunities.”
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Lack of employment opportunity is a concern to the general public in post-Recession America. Yet, that duress is magnified in the “pockets of poverty” Kaufman and his cofounder El Sawyer have been documenting for nearly a decade.
“It’s all about the spatial contagion,” Sawyer said. “What are the norms of the environment you come home to? Further than that, the question becomes, what creates the norms in those environments?”
Sawyer knows firsthand. When he was a teenager, the filmmaker was incarcerated for first-degree aggravated assault. That time in prison — and more importantly, what Sawyer experienced once he came home — was the impetus for what would eventually become MING.
“That experience felt like there’s a whole section of society that just wasn’t heard,” Sawyer said.
It’s an experience Kaufman wasn’t familiar with firsthand, but something he saw growing up in Germantown in the early 1990s. After graduating from Temple University — where he met Sawyer, who was working with film classes at the time — he knew he wanted to explore the root of recidivism.
"You hear all these statistics and you know recidivism is high, the prison rate is high, but what is the day-to-day life for a couple of these individuals?"
But traditional academia wasn’t the way to go about it.
“The academic route was a bunch of lies,” Kaufman said. “This is not what I saw, this is not people I know.”
The best way to learn, and hopefully the best way to create change, was by humanizing the statistics and figures we’re all familiar with.
“You hear all these statistics and you know recidivism is high, the prison rate is high, but literally, what is the day-to-day life for a couple of these individuals?” Kaufman said. “What does it actually look and feel like?”
It also means breaking down the misconceptions some of those numbers produce both among the general public and people coming home from prison.
“General population, the misconception is that people are supposed to come home, they served their time, they’re supposed to get themselves together. If they don’t get themselves together and stay home, they had a choice in the matter and it was their choice,” Sawyer said. “For people coming home, I think the misconception is that if they listen to the system and that system tells them they just have to want to change or want to do better they’re going to do better.”
Both are just grossly wrong, Sawyer said. The missing factor is contingent on the environment ex-offenders are coming home to. Of course, everybody has some degree of agency — they can make their own choices, Kaufman said. But under what environment are those decisions made?
For as much work in impoverished communities as MING has done, Kaufman and Sawyer are yet to see a systemic solution.
“What worked for me was positive networks and people who actually saw me as human and gave me options. I think that was the major thing,” Sawyer said. “Having a job, an occupation, something that actually could get me in the position to change my space and conversation gave me a broader outlook on life.”
Success stories like Sawyer’s are the focus of MING’s newest work, which is yet to be announced. The work will feature stories about individuals who have, in a way, defied gravity.
“You all know how gravity works, man,” Pusha T told Sawyer and Kaufman. “It holds you down.”-30-
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