Thumbnail image for this story (this will show up on the stories page of the site):
Relevant issues for this story, separated by commas (eg. war, race, gender):
Human Rights, Race
Geographical region for this story (eg. Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia):
North America
Relevant key words for this story, separated by commas (eg. Africa, Hurricane Katrina, Mother Teresa):
Incarceration, African-American, Texas, Crime
A short summary for this story that will go on the stories page (1-2 sentences):
This project will focus on the affects of mass incarceration on African American communities and families in a “post-racial” America.
Raymond Thompson Jr.

2012 — student award of excellence

Beverly Brown, 64, calls herself the matriarch of her multi-generational family. The eldest of her five siblings, Beverly proudly holds court at her tiny home at 12th street and Airport Boulevard in Austin Texas’s historically black eastside. The modest house is the family homestead and main material asset, but even more importantly it is the core of family life. Beverly is also her family’s unofficial record keeper. The brown faces emerging from the unframed photographs that line her living room wall are keys to a library of memories locked in Beverly’s head and heart. From this brick ranch-style house, in which she has lived for almost half a century she has also witnessed the changes that swept through her once thriving minority neighborhood as drugs and the war on drugs wreaked human and social devastation. The majority of the men and women in Beverly’s family have been incarcerated for drug related crimes at some point during their lives. The plight of the urban poor who live on Austin’s eastside is not an unfamiliar tale in the United States. Their lives are beset with issues that are the direct and indirect collateral damage from the war on drugs.

Currently, there are 2.3 million people serving time in US prisons, a 300 percent increase since the 1980s, which currently costs close to 50 billion dollars annually. These statistics paint a bleak picture for the African American community. One out of every 12 black men is currently incarcerated in the United States, a number that is especially alarming when compared to the rate for white males, which is 1 of 87.

As I sat listening to Beverly tell me the tragic history of her family, I could not help but share her feelings of frustration and anger. As a black male, I see part of myself in the pictures on Beverly’s wall. The statistics that predict our fate are grim. Even though I am college educated, the sting is visceral when I read that we have a 1 in 4 chance of going to jail during our lifetimes, a fate in which both skin color and socio-economic marginalization play a determining role.

My purpose with this project is to probe deeply making photographs that challenge the narrative about poverty in urban America, which focuses on extremes of individual dysfunction and racialized stereotypes in a national climate of racial indifference. Drawing upon my studies of American history and culture, I will produce a body of visual work that examines intimately the most costly side effects of the war on drugs: it’s impact on the dreams of young people and on community confidence, pride, and agency. Even if the tough drug laws and mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug felonies were repealed tomorrow, the communities that have been the drug war’s front lines, since the 1970s, will continue to suffer its protracted effects for generations into the future. In telling this story from the inside my aim is to restore dignity to those who are so often silenced by shame and self-blame.

In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander writes: “mass incarceration has been normalized and all of the racial stereotypes and assumptions that gave rise to the system are now embraced by people of all colors, from all walks of life, and in every political party. . .this extraordinary circumstance—unheard of in the rest of the world—is treated here in America as a basic fact of life, as normal as separate water fountains were just a half century ago.”

The majority of those incarcerated will return to their communities, but when they do they will be less able to contribute as productive members. Access to jobs, the ballot and even housing are often denied to people with a felony conviction. Most drug offenses, beyond possession of a small quantity of marijuana are considered felonies.

With the support of the Alexia grant, I plan to tell the story of this social devastation through the lives of people like Beverly Brown living on Austin Texas’s eastside as well as through the efforts of those who are trying to remake this once vibrant community. Using still and moving images, my exploration will look at how incarceration is affecting African American perceptions of self and their access to their American Dreams. In addition my aim is to challenge the notion that America is “post racial” – to subvert the “color blindness” which has contributed to perpetuation of the 21st century’s version.

Read more
A boy stares though a window during a Friends and Family of Incarcerated People car wash fundrasier in Southeast Washington, D.C. Friends and Family of Incarcerated People, a non-profit based in Washington D.C., offers a summer camp for children of incarcerated parents and other children whose parents are absent. Raymond Thompson Jr./Alexia Foundation
A child looks at a car that had been broken into the night before FFOIP sumer camp in Southeast Washington, D.C. Friends and Family of Incarcerated People, a non-profit based in Washington D.C., offers a summer camp for children of incarcerated parents and other children whose parents are absent. Raymond Thompson Jr./Alexia Foundation
The Booker T. Washington Public Housing complex, in Austin, Texas, is plagued by a revolving door of single-parent households and incarceration. Raymond Thompson Jr./Alexia Foundation
A boys listen to instructions on keeping a proper boxing guard during a rally to protest the shooting death of Almeded Bradley by an Austin Police Officer. Raymond Thompson Jr./Alexia Foundation
Xavier Randolph dances with his father Inmate Frank Randolph during a Hope House summer camp program for youth with imprison fathers at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md. Raymond Thompson Jr./Alexia Foundation
Members of Mix Emotion go-go band pray before a performance at a community gardening event in the Lincoln Heights area of Northeast Washington D.C. Lincoln Heights is a crime plagued area and has a large number of low-income residents. Raymond Thompson Jr./Alexia Foundation
Children play a word game during FFOIP's summer camp. Friends and Family of Incarcerated People, a non-profit based in Washington D.C., offers a summer camp for children of incarcerated parents and other children whose parents are absent. Raymond Thompson Jr./Alexia Foundation
Children toss piece of paper that contain their personal troubles into a fire during Hope House summer camp program for youth with imprison fathers at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md. Raymond Thompson Jr./Alexia Foundation
An inmate hugs his crying children goodbye at the end of a Hope House summer camp program for youth with imprison fathers at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md. Raymond Thompson Jr./Alexia Foundation
Chelsea Shorts walks alone railroad tracks in Austin, Texas. Shorts father was incarcerated for most of her life. Raymond Thompson Jr./Alexia Foundation