In an era of prison privatization; underfunded, overcrowded and aging facilities; mandated and minimum sentencing; and ever-growing numbers of incarcerated convicts, it’s hardly news that American prisons are increasingly dangerous places. In The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family, Sylvia A. Harvey’s unflinching investigation of the vast collateral damage falling on the prisoners’ families, it’s a given that prison sentences are barely tolerable for all who are affected. As for the indifferent or unsympathetic public, Harvey makes it clear that the time has come to think again. The daughter of a convict herself, she is more than a diligent journalist and credible narrator. She is an activist demanding prison reform.
Peppering the history of mass incarceration with statistics and firsthand accounts of failed justice, Harvey goes behind today’s headlines of prison riots, inmate and officer casualties and widespread corruption. She makes it personal, weaving the paths of three families through time, crime and, seemingly inevitably, prison. Implacable poverty, addictions, blatant racism and poor legal representation coalesce to bear down on the generations of families fractured by incarceration.
William, serving a sentence of life without parole for murder in Mississippi, and Ruth, his long-suffering wife, try to keep their son Naeem on a safer path, but ultimately they fail. Likewise, Randall’s mother does her best despite their surroundings, but her long hours of work at multiple low-paying jobs in Florida leave Randall free to fall into street crime and, ultimately, a failed robbery, unaffordable bail, an inept attorney and a nightmare of solitary confinements, unchecked deprivations and institutionalized despair. Meanwhile, his daughter Niyah insists her father is away “at school,” a lie told to avoid the shame of his incarceration. In Kentucky, Dawn’s addictions cost her custody of her children, but with her mother’s help, she avoids losing them to a child welfare system that can leave addicted mothers in a painful double bind while incarcerated, and financially unstable when released.
Harvey does not leave her reader wondering what can be done and who can help. While citing organizations like the National Resource Center on Children and Family of the Incarcerated and the federal interagency group Children of Incarcerated Parents, she ends with James Baldwin’s words: “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” She has done her job here.