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For families of the incarcerated, conviction comes with a cost

On some blocks, states pay $1 million a year to incarcerate residents, and the cost to families can also be crippling

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Widline Augustine still talks about that day as if she were in high school. She met Andre in her third-period gym class and quickly fell in young love. Nearly two decades and two kids later, the 32-year-old says she’s still very much in love, though Andre has been away from home, in prison, for the past 13 years.

In Brownsville, Brooklyn, on a rare day off from her long shifts as a medical assistant, Augustine tells me It usually takes careful planning — and a good amount of money — to bring the family together in the visiting room of Sing Sing Prison, a facility about 45 miles north in Ossining, New York

She says she and her children try to go at least once a month. And while it’s a challenge, for her it’s well worth it.

“I grew up without my father,” she said. “So I never wanted the kids to feel how I felt.  I didn't care where Andre was. They were going to know [their father].”

Each year, the U.S. spends $80 billion to incarcerate more than 2.4 million people. But when it comes to communities, the costs are even more staggering. A disproportionate number of inmates come from just a handful of neighborhoods in the country’s biggest cities. In this Brooklyn community, Augustine’s story is all too common. Brownsville has one of the highest concentrations of “million-dollar blocks” — places where the state is paying more than $1 million a year to incarcerate the residents of a single census block — in the country. And often, according to research from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design, the burden of mass incarceration is left to women.

Here’s what their study found about those the incarcerated leave behind:

Most abandoned households are run by women

For 13 years, Widline Augustine has brought her children to see their father, Andre, in prison. He has at least another six years until he is released.
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As inmates serve time in prison, families on the outside have to keep themselves — and the incarcerated — afloat. According to the Ella Baker Center study, 63 percent of prisoners had made family members primarily responsible for “court-related costs associated with conviction,” from legal fees to collect calls and medical expenses. Eighty-three percent of those family members were women.

Augustine and her family have been dealing with the costs of incarceration for the 13 years Andre has been behind bars. When Andre first got caught up in the system, she was home with a toddler, and a month pregnant with her second child.

“You love someone [and] they're taken away from you,” Augustine said. “And there's nothing you can do about it. So now you have to be the strong one, no matter what the situation — whether it's your husband, your son, your uncle, your cousin — you have to be the strong one.”

The average family goes into more than $13,000 worth of debt


The state pays to keep those convicted of crimes throughout their time in prison. But for families, the fees start to stack up long before that.

The Ella Baker Center says nearly half of the families surveyed were unable to afford the average $13,000 associated with a conviction — nearly a full year’s income for the many poor families who make less than $15,000 per year. 

It’s a familiar story for Brownsville resident Kishma Holmes, who faced a mountain of fees after her son was locked up. Last year, he was arrested and placed in an upstate prison on drug-related charges for about six months.

“It was real difficult dealing [with] four children and a granddaughter," she said. "[And I] had to support my son in a situation that he should never have been in."

The biggest cost was a lawyer, which she says put her “in a hole for almost $3,500 that I did not have.”

Contacting loved ones comes at a price

Augustine tries to brings her two children to see their father, Andre, once a month.
Wildline Augustine

Even staying in touch can put families in tough financial situations. According to the study, more than one in three families went into debt “to pay for phone calls and visits alone.” Family members who were not able to talk or visit with their loved ones regularly were much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts related to a family member’s incarceration.

For Augustine, visits are a crucial, but costly, part of keeping the family together.

“Imagine spending $200 just for a visit for five to six hours, and then you still got to leave and your kids is asking you questions like, ‘Daddy, why you can't leave with us?’ Or ‘Mommy, when's Daddy coming home?’” she said. “And you're just lost and you have no answer for your kids.”

Even after release, former felons — and their families — deal with health effects of incarceration

Kishma Holmes still deals with the anxiety she developed while her son was locked up.
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Beyond the financial burden, there’s a health burden, too. About one in every two of the formerly incarcerated — as well as one in every two of their family members  — dealt with health issues related to their own or a loved one’s incarceration.

Among the most common issues: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nightmares, hopelessness, depression and anxiety.

After Holmes’ son called to tell her about alleged abuse he suffered in prison at the hands of correctional officers, her anxiety was overwhelming, she said.  

“I didn't trust the police. I didn't trust the probation officer,” she said. “I didn't trust that system anymore.”

Many have to find a new place to call home

In 2003, it cost $17 million to imprison 109 people from these 17 blocks in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Eric Cadora (Justice Mapping Center) and Laura Kurgan (Spatial Information Design Lab, Columbia University)

Once the incarcerated return to their communities, two-thirds of respondents’ families helped them find housing, the study found. Nearly one in five families involved in the survey faced eviction, were denied housing, or did not qualify for public housing once their formerly incarcerated family member returned.

Without family, the formerly incarcerated have few resources, the study said: “Reentry programs, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations combined did not provide housing and other support at the levels that families did.”

For Augustine, Andre’s homecoming is a day she’s been eagerly awaiting. He has six more years of a 20-year sentence; the day he returns home is the day her family will be whole again.

“My dream that I pray is that he comes home before his firstborn graduates from high school or even college. Is that a possibility? I don't know. I don't know,” she said. “But that's what I pray for, just to at least have that moment to share with your kids.”

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