Black fathers and sons behind bars together: How common is it?

On March 9th, rapper Coolio was arrested and jailed briefly in the same Las Vegas facility as his son, who was being held for his alleged participation in a November, 2011 robbery. Police arrested the “Gangsta’s Paradise” rapper, whose legal name is Artis Leon Ivey Jr., after realizing he had two outstanding bench warrants during a routine traffic stop.

Reports of the occurrence have caused some observers to wonder if the high rate of black male incarceration has lead to a phenomenon of father-son reunions that are fostered by the penal system.

In 2008, the U.S Bureau of Justice reported that there were more than 846,000 black men in prison, meaning that black males represented more than 40 percent of the total prison population.

Experts say that there is no clear evidence that black men and their sons are regularly doing time in the same prisons or jails. However, “given the horrible racial disparities in incarceration rates, the chances are elevated that relatives would be placed in the same institutions,” said Gloria J.Browne-Marshall associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

According to Browne-Marshall, author of Race, Law and American Society, it would be difficult to aggregate statistics on father-son relationships amongst prisoners across the country. She said that occurrences like that of Coolio and his son are more likely in a jail setting because jails have limited jurisdictions, and only house inmates for relatively short periods of time.

Prisons are specifically for inmates with lengthier sentences. Reports indicate that Coolio and his son were in the same facility for a matter of hours before Coolio posted bail. Browne-Marshall went on to say that some prisons have policies which would prevent fathers and sons from being housed in the same facility, for security purposes.

“There are prisons with policies which would place relatives in separate facilities if they are believed to be in a gang or part of some criminal enterprise, or perhaps there is a possibility they will attempt to create a criminal enterprise while in prison.”Father-son prison reunions may be anecdotal. However, rates of black male incarceration, recidivism and the fact that at least 44 percent of black fathers live apart from their children, according to the Pew Research Center, have caused community groups to take action.

Fathers Now, a comprehensive program in Newark, New Jersey, helps formerly incarcerated men reconnect with their children. The program offers a road map for fathers in transition and provides training and assistance in a number of categories, from parenting skills to job searches and career counseling.

Itymu Ginn, a graduate of the 8-week program, says that Fathers Now taught him socialization skills that will help to keep him away from the criminal justice system.

“I was very anti social…normally, I would not talk to another man unless I knew him,” said Ginn father of a son, age six, and a daughter, two. Now that the 30-year-old is working as the organization’s office manager, and he says that he will use the lessons
that he’s learned to show his 6-year-old son the consequences of both negative and positive choices.

“I will try to show them where he can end up, he has a lot of uncles and cousins that are locked up, I can show him their mistakes, and hopefully he will make the decision
to make a better choice.”

When asked if his father or mother had ever been to jail, Itymu Ginn said that he had a “long family history of incarceration.” A family legacy of imprisonment can be a factor in whether individuals are likely to spend time in prison.

However, as Professor Browne-Marshall is quick to remind us, that legacy can be overcome. She says that she knows students who are studying criminal justice whose parents are currently incarcerated.

“The majority of the offspring defeat it, they work against the notion that their life is preordained to incarceration. The young people who don’t go into that life feel that
they have been ignored,” said Browne-Marshall.

“We need to spend more time lifting them up, asking them how they were able to do it [stay out of the penal system], and learning from them.”

Follow Chelsea-Lyn Rudder on Twitter at @ChelseaLynR