Prison Is Becoming A Way Of Life For Black Men

As Rudy Holder walked down East Harlem’s main drag, everyone seemed to remember him. One man after another greeted him with a handshake or a quick, one-armed hug. Each exchange brought a nervous look to Holder’s face: Friend or foe? Some of the men he recognized. Some he didn’t. But they all knew him.

“Trouble,” they said, again and again. It was the nickname he’d earned as a teenager.

After serving 12 years in prison, Rudy Holder had come home to East Harlem on parole, joining the 725,000 others who are released from correctional facilities each year across the country. Holder’s crime was gunning down two rivals, neither fatally, in 1993. In returning to Harlem, he was hoping to avoid the cycle that engulfs so many ex-convicts and lands them back in jail time after time.

Of the 7 million Americans (1 in 33) who were incarcerated, on probation or parole in 2010, more than 4 in 10 can be expected to return to prison within three years, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Center on the States.

“It’s still weird coming back here,” said Holder, now a baby-faced 37-year-old, the sun glinting off his shaved head.

A lifetime ago Holder chased little girls in braids and rough-housed with the bigger boys. He spoke with a stutter, which disappeared when he sang, as he often did, with the famed Boys Choir of Harlem. By the age of 10, he was a star drummer at the Pentecostal church where his father was a minister.

In the years to come, the life of a choir boy gave way to fistfights and, later, to gunplay. The unluckiest of his friends wound up dead. Most of the others, Holder included, would end up serving time in prison or on a loop between the city streets and the city jail.

That cycle of repeated arrests and incarcerations comes at a high price to the states, which collectively spend about $52 billion a year on corrections costs. That number has quadrupled over the last 20 years as changing law enforcement philosophies, including the so-called war on drugs, have meant more aggressive policing, criminalization and incarcerations.

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