Barriers to Sustainability in Poor Marginalized Communities in the United States: The Criminal Justice, the Prison-Industrial Complex and Foster Care Systems


In the United States of America, 2.2 million people are incarcerated in public and private facilities and over 700,000 are released yearly back to their home communities. Almost half are rearrested within a year. These problems have been excluded from mainstream sustainability narratives, despite their serious implications for sustainability. This paper addresses how the criminal justice, prison-industrial complex and foster care systems negatively impact these communities and families. To comprehend the system links, a sustainability lens is used to examine and address interlinking system impacts obstructing achievement of sustainability and the necessary community characteristics for building sustainable communities. Communities characterized by environmental degradation, economic despair and social dysfunction are trapped in unsustainability. Therefore, a system-of-communities framework is proposed which examines the circumstances that bring about prison cycling which devastates family and community cohesion and social networking, also negatively affecting the ability of other communities to become truly sustainable. We contend that a fully integrated social, economic and environmental approach to a major, complex, persistent problem as it relates to poor, marginalized communities faced with mass incarceration and recidivism can begin creating sustainable conditions. Further, we articulate ways sustainability narratives could be changed to engage with core challenges impeding these communities.

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Muriel Adams, Sonja Klinsky, and Nalini Chhetri

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