The prison system is one of the few institutions where African-Americans are broadly overrepresented. While racial disparities in federal and state prisons are shrinking, the figures remain high after years of unequal treatment from law enforcement and the justice system.
At the end of 2016, federal and state prisons held 47,100 more African-American inmates than white inmates, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That's a drop from 94,800 in 2009. Still, for a group that made up about 12 percent of the U.S. population in 2016, the odds are stacked against you when more than double that, 33 percent to be exact, makes up the total sentenced prison population, according to the Pew Research Center.
Myrtle Beach-based columnist and author Issac J. Bailey has intimate experience with the intersection of crime, law enforcement, institutional racism, and the prison system. When Bailey was nine years old, his brother Herbert "Moochie" Bailey, Jr. killed a white shop-owner in a nearby town. What followed were endless family visits to the various prisons where Moochie was held, a stutter that may have been exacerbated by the traumatic experience of seeing his brother taken away in handcuffs, and years of trying to distance himself from his status as a black man in America even as his brother found solace in owning his racial identity behind bars.
As he prepared for a luncheon with Blue Bike at Halls Signature Events (5 Faber St.) on Fri. Aug. 24 to promote his book, My Brother Moochie, Bailey discussed his process, how prisoners are seen in America, and what it's like to raise two teenagers in the South under the Trump administration.
City Paper: You've talked about how hard it was to finally write about the intersection of the prison system and your family. Your first column about it didn't come until 2000, 18 years after Moochie was first arrested. How did this book, which is considerably longer than your columns, compare to your previous writing?
Issac J. Bailey: This has pretty much been one of the hardest things I've tried to write. My guess is that I've been trying to do it, on and off, for the past five or six years probably. Part of that is trying to actually piece together some of the facts of my brother's situation, (Moochie shot the store-owner in 1982) and also trying to contend with my own personal shame about the story.
CP: How involved was the real Moochie in your writing process?
Bailey: At least with me, I viewed him just like another source, just like I would for any story that I was writing about any family. I really tried hard to actually use my journalistic eye more than my brotherly eye.
CP: You wrote in the Charlotte Observer, and later for Vice, that your brother James is serving 16 years at Lee Correctional Facility, the same prison where seven people were killed during a gang riot earlier this year. How did it feel when news of the riot first trickled out?
Bailey: For several hours that morning we were actually trying to figure out if he was still even alive. I kept trying to call, and we had some family members who were actually calling the prison itself trying to get some kind of sense of things there. It took several hours to hear that he was in a different dorm, fortunately. It was [a huge relief]. It was really intense at least for a few hours.
CP: How do you think peoples' perception of prisoners and convicted criminals affects their treatment?
Bailey: The public doesn't care enough. That actually makes it easier for state officials to not care either. That is why the police have actually gotten so bad and why outbursts are inevitable, because if you put anybody in situations like that and you leave them there that long and see them as animals and talk about them as animals, you are sort of, I guess, seeding the ground for something really bad to happen.
CP: You have a 16-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter. As a parent who writes about very delicate issues affecting the black community in the Deep South during a time of increased racial resentment from a specific "silent majority," how do you instill that sometimes painful knowledge onto your own kids? What does that look like?
Bailey: That has been a very delicate dance. And also, at least early on, I realized I was sort of too scared for them and I felt like [my wife Tracy] was tougher than she needed to be because she wanted them to know these possible dangers were out there. I've actually tried to change up my parenting somewhat, just to instill and be very honest with them about their uncles in prison and all sorts of things, and also what's going on with Donald Trump. At the same time, I am trying to give them space to carve out their own sort of mark as well. It's very tricky 'cause you're trying to have them ready just in case some of these ugly things come to their doorsteps. At the same time, I don't want them to have to think about it too much.
CP: You write about how the horrors you witnessed as a kid — your father abusing your mother, your heroic older brother going to prison, and how some of these experiences heightened the shame you already felt for being black. How do you stop your children from feeling that way?
Bailey: That's one of the most difficult things to do. I want them to be freer than I was. Also, I don't want them to see the kinds of things I did growing up. On that count, I've been able to do that, in terms of Tracy raising them and teaching them about relationships and education and all these sort of things. Fortunately, they get to go to school in a well-funded school, whereas I didn't. That is a really, really positive change. I just wish that they actually make their own way for the world. That's my biggest hope for them.
CP: How has Moochie reacted to your various writings about him?
Bailey: He has really appreciated it. Because I think that for him it has actually made it easier for him to transition back into the world. Even when it's less than pleasant, we always try to get to the truth of the thing. That will get us to a better spot.
CP: What was the hardest thing to go back to during your research?
Bailey: Writing about my dad was very difficult, especially sitting down with my mom about this, who is still very scarred by some of what happened, and also trying to speak with a bunch of family. That part was, like, the hardest part of all. I did not know how something would be received. Those were some really painful sit-downs.
CP: You've shared how, at times, you were even grateful when your brothers were in prison, because they made your hometown of St. Stephen feel safer for your kids to visit. Are you still afraid of your brothers?
Bailey: No. For a couple of them, they've really grown and changed and actually sort of really become positive people in the world. Ten or 12 years ago, when they were actually doing awful things right in my hometown, I had more reason to worry then than now, for sure.
CP: A lot of people have been talking about portrayals of prison life in movies and TV. Orange Is the New Black, which recently debuted its sixth season on Netflix, has been called out as trauma porn by some. What do you think about the portrayal of the prison system in culture?
Bailey: I keep thinking about the choice of telling the story or not telling the story. We should actually think about telling it well. For me, as long as it is told well and it actually lets you see all of the complexities and layers, I think that can actually do real, real good for us.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to show that African-Americans made up 94,800 of U.S. federal and state prisoners in 2009, not 2016 as originally written.