Google+ Back to mobile
<< Multimedia

Locked Out

The war on drugs continues to deny the American Dream to countless poor black families.
by Published on


The war on drugs continues to deny the American Dream to countless poor black families.
  • Justice-Undone_24

    The Booker T. Washington Terrace public housing complex in East Austin is plagued by high incarceration rates. The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that children living below the poverty line have greater chances of facing social, emotional and behavioral problems that can follow them into adulthood.
  • Justice-Undone_05

    Members of Beverly Brown’s family work on the final preparations for Christmas dinner. Many members of Beverly’s family have been incarcerated, leaving Beverly to serve as the primary care provider for nine of her 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren during their parents’ absence.
  • Justice-Undone_15

    Children play basketball at the Booker T. Washington Terrace public housing complex in East Austin. 
  • Justice-Undone_07

    Beverly Brown rests in her living room.  “I remember hearing my grandmother use the term ‘generational curse.’ I didn’t understand until I saw ... my brothers go to prison. Then a couple of their children went. Then I actually had two daughters that have been to prison and two of my sons have been to prison,” she says.
  • Justice-Undone_16

    Chelsea Shorts, then 17, uses a shed in the backyard of her East Austin home for her personal art studio. The shed is a refuge from the crowded house she shares with her parents, grandparents, cousins and one sibling. “When you’re painting, you can paint the world however you want the world to be. I feel like when I’m creating art there are no limitations, I just have unlimited freedom,” she says.
  • Justice-Undone_23

    A boy at the Millennium Youth Center shows off the hand signal “02,” which represents his neighborhood in East Austin. The Center was planned after a drive-by shooting claimed the life of 16-year-old Tamika Ross in 1992. It opened its doors in June 1999 as a safe gathering place for Austin youth. 
  • Justice-Undone_18

    Teenagers gather to use the free Wi-Fi outside the Booker T. Washington community center. Lack of Internet access is an issue for some residents of the Booker T. Washington Terrace public housing complex in Austin. 
  • Justice-Undone_25

    A boy listens to instructions on keeping a proper boxing guard during a rally to protest the 2012 shooting death of Ahmede Bradley by an Austin police officer. 
  • Justice-Undone_08

    An Austin Police Department vehicle drives by while Marquis Brown, Bebe Brown and Leroy Brown gather on the front porch of Beverly Brown’s house in Austin. The Brown family home is located in the 78702 zip code, which has an incarceration rate that is five times higher than the rest of Austin. 
  • Justice-Undone_06

    Nicholas Brown, then 19, speaks with his girlfriend before leaving home. Nicholas lives with his grandmother, Beverly Brown, due to his strained relationship with his mother, Vicky. Vicky has spent the majority of Nicholas’ childhood in prison and drug-treatment institutions.
  • Justice-Undone_27

    Chelsea Shorts walks along railroad tracks in Austin. Chelsea’s father has been incarcerated for most of her life. 

The war on drugs has led to the incarceration of millions of Americans. Between 1965 and 2000, the prison population in the United States swelled by 600 percent, according to Robert Perkinson, author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire. There are currently more than two million people incarcerated in the United States, and since the start of the war on drugs, more than 31 million Americans—a disproportionate number of them from poor black communities—have been arrested for drug-related crimes, according to The Sentencing Project.

Whites are just as likely as blacks to use drugs, according to research by the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services. Yet the front line of the war on drugs is being fought in poor black neighborhoods across the country. As a result, poor African-American families are being trapped in generational cycles of incarceration. In the period leading up to the civil rights movement, African-Americans were incarcerated at a rate four times higher than whites. Currently, the incarceration rate for African-Americans is seven times that of whites, according to Perkinson.

Austin isn’t immune to this trend. In fact, the disparity between black and white drug arrests in Austin is even greater than the national average. The number of African-Americans arrested on drug charges in Austin has spiked by 394 percent since the start of the war on drugs—compared to a 16 percent increase for Anglos.

The images from my photo project document everyday life in an East Austin community that has been disproportionately affected by mass incarceration. According to the Justice Mapping Center, incarceration rates for the 78702 zip code, where many of these images were created, is five times higher than the average rate in Austin. The 78702 zip code and neighboring 78721 contain only 3.5 percent of the city’s adult population but account for more than 17 percent of Austin’s prisoners.

The communities and families featured in this photo essay are just another statistic in America’s war on drugs. Unequal enforcement of drug laws has had an unimaginable effect on poor minority populations in the United States, and prisons have filled with African-Americans. The loss of these individuals destabilizes entire communities. Upon their release, they re-enter the community as second-class citizens. Drug policies continue to deny the American Dream to countless poor African-American families.

These photos are from Raymond Thompson’s “Justice Undone” project, funded by a grant from the Alexia Foundation.