AuthorBjorkman, Timothy W.

    In 1977, America's prisons held about 280,000 people, with a prison rate that had remained static for fifty years. (1) Since then, however, its prison population has exploded to 2.3 million men and women, growing at a rate seventeen times that of the nation's overall population growth. Despite massive efforts to reverse the trend, the Land of the Free now incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world, and five and one-half times the rate of forty years earlier. (2) Although the United States comprises less than 5% of the world's population, it harbors 25% of the world's prisoners. (3) The United States also imprisons more people per capita than any other country; (4) more than eight times that of Western Europe, nearly seven times that of Canada, three-and-one-half times that of Mexico, (5) and more than China and India combined. (6) In all, over seven million Americans today are either incarcerated or on felony supervision; eleven million go to jail each year, (7) only a small minority of whom have been convicted of a crime. An estimated twenty million Americans have a felony record. (8)

    South Dakota's numbers are even more staggering. In 1977, South Dakota housed about 500 inmates, but over the past four decades that number has swelled to more than 3,900--a roughly 750% increase. (9) The state's prison numbers have grown at a rate thirty times that of the state's overall population increase during the period. (10) Today South Dakota imprisons more people per capita than every state it borders. (11)

    The increased prison populations have placed unprecedented burdens upon state and federal welfare systems and state and county budgets which pay to feed, clothe, house, and cover the substantial medical costs of inmates. The era of mass incarceration has also profoundly affected millions upon millions of America's children. What do we really know, though, about the lives of those sentenced to prison and how they ended up there? While we know America's seemingly insatiable appetite for illegal drugs drives the vast majority of crime, what do we understand about the factors that lead to addiction? (12) Finally, are there ways in which the system itself actually perpetuates and exacerbates the problems and circumstances that led them to prison?

    The answers to those questions lie not in the law, but in mountains of data developed in the fields of sociology, socioeconomics, demography, and in the still-unfolding science of the brain. It is in the data that a mosaic of the prison population emerges, revealing a multi-generational sub-culture made up largely of the under-educated, the dysfunctional poor, the addicted, and the mentally ill. (13) This culture sustains itself into the next generation due to various mutations of those factors, fueled by exceedingly high rates of unintended births. These factors create an environment in which the children of prisoners often also grow up in impoverished, unstable homes, which can lead to a host of adverse educational and economic outcomes, and eventually lead those children also into poverty, mental illness, and addiction. The path they tread all too frequently leads to prison.

    While the imprisoned come from all walks of life, each with a unique life story, two-thirds of South Dakota inmates lack a high school diploma, about 90% suffer from a substance disorder, many with a co-occurring mental disorder; a substantial number grew up fatherless and in poverty; many--including over half the women in prison--are childhood abuse survivors. (14) Yet, more than half of the men and 75% of the women in South Dakota's prison system are there for nonviolent crimes. (15)

    This article is not about statutes and case law. It is about the troubled lives experienced by so many dwelling in society's shadows, their road to prison, and the factors that continue to shackle them long after they have served their sentences. The first section canvasses the empirical data for the impact educational, familial, economic, and emotional circumstances play in presaging who will go to prison. The second section analyzes South Dakota's efforts to reform its criminal justice system. The final segment addresses ways in which some laws actually thwart an offender's rehabilitation and points to a way forward beyond the reforms implemented in South Dakota.


    In many ways, James and Christina help tell the stories of many who go to prison. (16) Christina, now twenty-four, grew up amid the chaos of dysfunction, not knowing her father, and living in the homes of various men with whom her mother was romantically involved. One of the men sexually abused her and her siblings. Her mother did not report Christina's abuse and she received no counseling. Christina soon found ways to suppress her memories. She began using marijuana with her mother's younger sister, who babysat her. She started drinking alcohol at ten and smoking cigarettes at eleven.

    School was always a problem for Christina. When she entered kindergarten, she already trailed her peers in reading, reciting the alphabet, counting, and one other key area: making friends. She often came to school in soiled clothes and with unkempt hair; other children said she smelled bad. All this made her an easy target for ridicule. Christina received only sporadic academic help, supervision, or encouragement in the home.

    When Christina was twelve, her mother went to prison for drugs. She then went to live with her grandmother, but her grandmother's own drinking problem left her incapable of caring for Christina. It was there that Christina began cutting herself and experiencing severe depression. Eventually, authorities placed Christina and her siblings with her maternal aunt, who became their guardian. By then Christina was smoking marijuana daily. Christina and the aunt independently began snorting methamphetamine, but once they learned the other was using, they snorted together. Not surprisingly, Christina struggled with school attendance. After years of academic failure in several different schools, she did not return following her freshman year.

    Christina became sexually active at fifteen. She did not use any birth control. She gave birth to a baby boy shortly after her seventeenth birthday. Following the child's birth, Christina had no further relationship with the father. Christina later bore two more children whom she conceived with different men. While Christina did not plan any of the pregnancies, she did not plan to avoid them either. In each case, she quickly found that the father was unsuitable as a husband and partner for raising her children. One partner physically abused her, and all three struggled themselves with substance abuse issues which led to incarceration. None of her children have meaningful relationships with their fathers.

    By 2013, Christina's life distilled into a daily pattern of using meth and looking for ways to get another $40 every few days in order to buy more. One day, the police came to the mobile home where she, three other adults, and her children were staying. Officers found meth and other illegal drugs there. Christina tested positive for meth, marijuana, and barbiturates. The officers soon arrested and handcuffed her, and she wept as a Department of Social Services ("DSS") worker led her children by the hand out of the drug-infested premises. DSS placed the children with her aunt, reportedly drug-free for about a year.

    Today, Christina retains little of the physical beauty of her youth; her body has suffered permanent damage from years of meth use, and she appears to be a decade older than she is. Her skin is blotchy and one can trace the indentations around her mouth where the meth has rotted her teeth and damaged her gums. The drug has ravaged more than Christina's body: she now also struggles with memory issues.

    Unlike Christina, James' parents were married for a brief time, although the marriage ended when James was young. They each have children from multiple partners. Addiction cut deep channels in James' family lines. Both of his grandfathers' lives were plagued by alcohol addiction. James' own mother and father abused drugs and alcohol as far back as he can remember. His most poignant memories of childhood are of his father beating him and his mother. Although James recalls tender moments when his father showed him love, he could never escape the overwhelming fear he felt for him, even flinching when his father entered a room. James' father left the family when he was five. After that, James had no further relationship with him, and James' family then consisted of his mom and two younger siblings.

    Since his mother had difficulty maintaining housing, James' family often lived with his mother's parade of boyfriends. They moved from town to town, and James spent time in at least eight different schools during his childhood. It was always hard to start over again in a new town. At times, the family was homeless. James recalls the hunger of missed meals, eating from dumpsters, always being dirty, and sensing that other children were staring at him.

    On several occasions, authorities removed James and his siblings from their mother's care and placed them in a series of foster homes. The first set of parents imposed unreasonable punishments on him and his siblings--like locking them in a room for misbehaving. When James was ten, authorities placed him and his siblings with another family. It was there that he experienced the meaning of actual love, guidance, and care. There he could eat whenever he wanted, he learned the importance of basic grooming, his clothes were washed regularly, and together with his foster mom, he folded and placed them in his own drawer. These foster parents took him to church each Sunday, made him feel safe, and held him accountable for his...

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