Maximum capacity: African Americans are in the middle of a prison population crisis


Factoid: The current rate of incarceration is growing three times faster than the population of the country at large.

“The math is simple; there are more inmates going in than are getting out and staying out, that’s the problem,” says Guy Gambill, an Advocacy Coordinator for the non-profit organization the Council on Crime and Justice in Minneapolis. “And the recidivism rates are a huge issue not just here in Minnesota; it’s nationwide.”

However, here in Minnesota the total prison population was expected to rise by 4.7% or 403 inmates for 2006 and over the next nine years is projected to increase by 2,291 inmates or 27%.

Now that may sound like a large enough number, but in fact Minnesota has long had and continues to have one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, as long as the numbers aren’t completely focused on the minority population.

If they are focused solely on the actual African-American populations in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, that low percentage rating may prove to be a little misleading.

According to the State Council on Black Minnesotans, as of the year 2000 census, Blacks make up approximately 18.03% of Minneapolis and 11.71% of St. Paul. However, the number of Blacks in Minneapolis accounted for 40.12% of the Black population statewide, while the St. Paul population accounted for 19.565% statewide.

Now come the all-important Minnesota incarceration rates, and according to Tom Johnson, former Hennepin County Attorney and current president of the Council on Crime and Justice, “We know for example that in 1999 in Hennepin County you had [a number equal to] over half of all African-American males between eighteen and thirty arrested in that one year.”

The reaction by some is that the police are patrolling in minority neighborhoods whether they are Hmong, Native American, Hispanic, Somali or African-American, because that is where the majority of the crimes are occurring.

But according to Johnson, the numbers do not support this: “To use who is arrested as a gauge to make a decision about who is committing crime isn’t accurate or fair.”

Others look to racial profiling – where police stop Black people just because of the color of their skin – as a potential cause for increased incarceration rates for African Americans.

In a study conducted over a six-month period in 2000, Minneapolis police stopped Black drivers at a rate of more than twice the numbers in their population, and an examination of St. Paul police records showed a similar trend.

Consequently, when studies show further that once they are in the Hennepin County or Ramsey County criminal justice system, Blacks are more likely to be charged with certain crimes like drug offenses, and Blacks are more likely to serve time in jail.

The resulting statistics equate to Blacks in Minnesota having the highest incarceration rates in the country as compared to whites. In addition, seven out of every ten inmates who leave prison come back, so the question then becomes: what, if anything, can be done about this alarming trend?

Recidivism rates – or the rate at which inmates come back to prison within three years – are the new watchwords that currently seem most important to criminologists, correctional institutions and law enforcement professionals.

A fairly new correctional program located seventy miles outside of Chicago may include many of the types of programs and opportunities needed to assist offenders, and ultimately could be the correct model on which to build a more responsive and successful national corrections strategy.

According to Warden Michael Rothwell, The Sheraton Correctional Center, which opened in 2004, has just one goal in mind: “to prevent inmates that get out of prison from returning.”

Paul Edward Hamilton welcomes comments at