Mendeecees Harris, one of the stars of VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop New York series, will spend the next eight years in federal prison. Harris, who was out on $600,000 bond, was convicted on drug trafficking charges after pleading guilty in April to conspiracy to distribute and possess heroin and cocaine. Federal prosecutors claim Harris was involved in the narcotics business from 2005 until 2012, though he wasn’t indicted and arrested until 2013.
Harris is losing an extensive period of his life. Though he acknowledges the crime, he is also a victim of systemic racism and the war on drugs, which penalizes African-Americans and Latinos at a disproportionate rate. Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization that conducts research on mass incarceration, found that Black men are 13 times more likely to be incarcerated for trafficking drugs than white men. Plus, research has shown that African-American and Latino drug dealers are excessively targeted by law enforcement, especially since they’re more likely to conduct business on street corners. Additionally, since the 1980’s, Black men have received lengthier sentences for the sale of drugs, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that lobbies for compassionate drug policies. These discriminate policies have caused America’s prison population to swell, leading to an uptick of between 55,000 and 75,000 new inmates annually.
When prisons swallow African-American men and women, it is their children and spouses who are also victimized.
Harris acknowledged as much in an Instagram post.
“To my wife and children you are all strong and well prepared for this,” Harris wrote. “This is just another brick laid down towards our house of happily ever after, walk with your head held high knowing I would never past the buck and put another family through what we have endured. Continue to walk in faith and love as you’ve done so well.”
Harris’ incarceration will hurt those who love him, like his wife, Yandy Smith-Harris, a music manager who also stars on Love & Hip-Hop New York.
Spouses, like Smith-Harris, are subjected to consistent victimization, according to Bruce Western, Guggenheim professor of criminal justice policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
“Like the inmates, those that visit are exposed to the many small routines and humiliations of institutional life—waiting to be called, passing through metal detectors, surrendering identification, submitting to searches. They too are, in some degree, institutionalized,” Western explains in his research on the impact of incarceration on marriage.
Additionally, incarceration can cause prisoners to develop negative behavioral patterns, which can bleed into their marriages after release.
Anne Nurse, sociology professor at the College of Wooster, argues that the overcrowding of prisons as well as the stripping of funding from educational programs causes some incarcerated men to isolate themselves from their families. Often, this turns them into detached husbands and fathers.
For the children of incarcerated parents, like Harris’ four, detached parenting has severe consequences.
Harris’ prison bid groups his children in the 1.7 million American kids and 70% of children of color who have an imprisoned parent. Nothing can prepare families for the awful moment when their loved one is incarcerated, and the impact is immense on children. In their book, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality, criminologists Christopher Wildeman and Sara Wakefield conclude that parental incarceration often leads to four specific outcomes, including increased rates of depression and homelessness.
Sociologist Kristin Turney, assistant professor at the University of California Irvine, reached a similar conclusion in her research on the children of incarcerated parents. These children, who are cruelly isolated from their parents, are three times more likely to be depressed and twice as likely to develop anxiety disorders.
Sometimes, visits to incarcerated parents are rare, so parenting must happen from afar, which isn’t always effective, according to Turney.
The impact of mass incarceration on children of color is so extensive that it’s gotten the attention of the Department of Justice. Last summer, the Justice Department revisited policies that prevent federal prisoners from interacting with their children. After the Department of Justice’s renewed focus on strengthening the bonds with between federal inmates and their children, the Federal Bureau of Prisons hosted its first Universal Children’s Day, which allowed 8,500 children to connect with over 4,000 federal prisoners.
Popular culture has also taken an interest in the effect of incarceration on children. Sesame Street introduced a new character, Alex, whose father is incarcerated. “I don’t like to talk about it,” Alex said in his first episode. “Most people don’t understand. I just miss him so much. It just hurts inside…. but then sometimes I feel like I just want to pound on a pillow and scream as loud as I can.”
Mass incarceration is harming families, as evidenced in the sudden separation of Harris from his wife and children. His unfortunate is all too common for Black families, which makes it bigger than a plotline for a reality television series. Harris’ plight shows the detriment of mass incarceration and demands the dismantling of the criminal (in)justice system.