The Shadow System

Mass Incarceration and the American Family


By Sylvia A. Harvey

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From an award-winning journalist, a searing exposé of the effects of the mass incarceration crisis on families — including the 2.7 million American children who have a parent locked up.

In The Shadow System, award-winning journalist Sylvia A. Harvey follows the fears, challenges, and small victories of three families struggling to live within the confines of a brutal system. In Florida, a young father tries to maintain a relationship with his daughter despite a sentence of life without parole. In Kentucky, where the opioid epidemic has led to the increased incarceration of women, many of whom are white, one mother fights for custody of her children. In Mississippi, a wife steels herself for her husband’s thirty-ninth year in prison and does her best to keep their sons close.

Through these stories, Harvey reveals a shadow system of laws and regulations enacted to dehumanize the incarcerated and profit off their families — from mandatory sentencing laws, to restrictions on prison visitation, to astronomical charges for brief phone calls.

The Shadow System is an eye-opening account of the way incarceration has impacted generations of American families; it delivers a galvanizing clarion call to fix this broken system.





Ruth Anderson’s gray Nissan cruises along the highway. The rain falling from the gunmetal sky sounds like hurried knocks from a stranger seeking shelter. The windshield wipers push back slowly, never fully clearing the downpour. For a minute, she wishes she had driven her GMC Yukon truck instead. Ruth can barely see the signs ahead, but even if her lane weren’t clear, she could make this drive wearing a blindfold. She’s heading to meet her husband, William, for their weekly Saturday morning rendezvous. When the rain does beat down on the city like this, William suggests his wife stay home, and sometimes she heeds his concern.

The rain slows as she nears her exit to Pearl, Mississippi. The quiet gospel song playing on her radio resurfaces. She’s just a few miles away. She passes sprawling, lush fields, rows of wet trees, and a few small houses. Once she sees the gun tower, it’s time to hide her phone from view. Ruth makes a right into the lot and stops at the first security checkpoint, where a group of officers wearing green circle her car. She hands one officer her driver’s license, then pops her trunk at another officer’s prompting. He looks in the car—the back seat is clear—and then nods for her to proceed. She’s cleared and pulls into the prison’s parking lot. She parks near the gate, then removes her white Apple watch and gold hoop earrings. She leaves on her wedding ring, a gold ban dotted with diamonds—the only jewelry, aside from a religious medallion, visitors can wear inside the facility. She tucks her Dooney & Bourke purse in the trunk.

Ruth’s face is bright and smooth, the color of peanut butter, and this week she’s sporting a sable-brown, straight bob haircut. She doesn’t like too much fuss. Her eyes are calm, alert even, despite just leaving a twelve-hour night shift in the psychiatric department of a local hospital. She’s still wearing her navy blue scrubs and sneakers. The seasoned registered nurse isn’t a stranger to long nights. “We didn’t get no admissions last night,” she offers. “But got a boy that wanted to fight a huge guy,” she tells me. He was likely a schizophrenic who’d gone off his medication.

It’s just after 9:30 a.m. “I’m later and later now,” she says slowly. “Sometimes it’ll be about ten.” Mornings aren’t her favorite and coming later means she avoids waiting in a long line with the throng of other visitors. She’ll have just over two hours to spend with her husband. She jogs past the rows of barbed wire fence and the electric door, out of the rain. A few other latecomers join her. Some are carrying children in their arms, and they sprint inside. Others walk slowly with jackets sprawled over their heads and join the short line outside the pale-yellow entry. Ruth checks in, handing the guard her license and car keys, and receives a silver coin in exchange. She removes her shoes and walks through the metal detector and X-ray machine.

When she enters the visiting room, William is already sitting in their usual spot—the back corner against the wall. He always faces the door to keep an eye out for anything happening and to see her arrive. Each day before the sun has a chance to yawn awake, William is up. He’s in his cell stirring his instant Folgers into a cup. He gets up by four o’clock every morning. He’ll take a shower and get dressed, his clothes already laid out from the previous evening. These days, an officer shortage means offenders don’t have a set ride to the visiting room. They catch a ride wherever they can, sometimes it’s on the canteen truck or the food truck, whichever is passing by. By 8:00 or 8:30 a.m., he’s sitting patiently waiting for his wife.

William, who looks taller than his actual six feet, stands up before Ruth reaches the table. He grins like he alone knows the secret to maintaining a marriage for over forty years. He’s still giddied at the sight of his ladylove. She approaches the table and he wraps her in his long arms, closing the one-foot gap between them. They share a familial embrace and brief kiss, the kind shared by a couple wed for decades, still crushing on each other, but with nothing to prove to onlookers.

His head is freshly shaven, his chestnut skin is alive against the bright white of his crisp button up. Green stripes march down his starched and creased white pants. His white Nikes look brand new, standing out from the black boots the other men are wearing. It’s the one day to pull out all the stops. “It’s fashion day,” he declares seriously. “Don’t want to look like no slouch. Got to represent.”

WILLIAM IS ONE OF THE more than 2.2 million people confined in America’s correctional facilities. Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, CMCF, has been his home for well over a decade. Like with thousands of families across the country, collect phone calls, pictures, and letters have been the fibers that have kept the Andersons connected. The moments when families get to touch, however, are the most coveted. Prison visitation varies from state to state and prison to prison. The warden is in charge of running the prison, and the one who approves the policies and procedures for their facility. But those practices must conform with the laws, rules, and standards of their state.

Typical visits, called contact visits, take place in designated areas with tables, chairs, and in some cases vending machines filled mostly with junk food and the occasional frozen food item. In some facilities, there are books to read and games to play. These visits take place under strict surveillance and allow extremely limited physical contact—usually just a brief hug and a kiss, lasting less than ten seconds, upon entry and exit.

The visit that William and Ruth are experiencing today is bare bones compared to what they once had. A few years ago, the Andersons had access to something else entirely: Mississippi’s Extended Family Visitation program, widely known as the Family House, which started in 1974 and lasted nearly a half-century. It was a real-life dream. The program allowed unsupervised visits that lasted for three to five days and took place on the facility grounds, in small apartments. They also had conjugal visits where; as a married couple, they could spend one private hour together once a week. The visits were cut due to reported budget cuts and racist, classist ideas about families of the incarcerated. Prison officials in Mississippi didn’t like the idea that they couldn’t police the number of babies being conceived, arguing it was unfair for a child to be brought into existence to a single parent.1

Now, they’re left with a four-hour slot once a week on Saturday, which is more than other prisoners are allowed. William is minimum custody and so receives more visits per month. For William, the visits remain the highlight of his week. “That’s what you have to look forward to.”

The worn beige walls are home to prison rules, notices, and a clock. Dozens of families, black and white, gather around white tables, sitting in blue or mauve chairs. At one table, a kid motions for his mom to open the clear plastic bag of food sitting at the center of the table. The hum of families catching up, the sound of soda cans popping, the ruffle of chip bags opening are thick in the air. Ruth and William are happy with the Styrofoam cups of water at their table. In the past, families visiting Mississippi prisons had their choice of purchases from vending machines: frozen burritos, chicken wings, Lunchables for kids, and more. But now the only vending machine in this visiting room is for prison staff.

Now, Mississippi prisoners must use the commissary—a store inside the prison—to buy a $10 bag of food one week in advance of visitations. William says it comes with the same items every week: two sodas, cookies, popcorn, peanut butter crackers, potato chips, and mixed nuts. Content with their cups of water, William and Ruth are holding their silent protest of two. They talk about the high costs of the food inside prisons.

Many of the items sold in the commissary are more than four times the retail price outside prison because private companies set their own prices. Prices can fluctuate and vary from facility to facility as contracts are negotiated between corrections departments and their vendors. So, depending on the state and facility, some commissary items are priced the same as they are in the free world. They’re what some would consider reasonable, but reasonable for whom? Paying $4 for a tube of anti-fungal cream, which isn’t a luxury item but a medical treatment, is prohibitively expensive for many in prison. Incarcerated people can’t afford to pay these reasonable prices on their own; even those who work in prison would have to save several days’ pay to fork over $4. In 2016, people incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons purchased over 245,000 bars of soap, at a total cost of $215,057. Although the department’s policy is to supply a free bar of soap weekly, each person spent an average of $22 for soap that year. When an incarcerated person has to buy items such as cough drops, eye drops, or an extra roll of toilet paper, the burden falls on their families to put money in their account. Nationally, families spend $1.6 billion annually on commissary items.2

“Between canteen, collect calls, and visiting, don’t ask me how much I’ve spent,” Ruth said. “I know it’s enough to buy a car or a small house.” William doesn’t even want Ruth to buy him the Christmas box for the holiday; he thinks it’s overpriced at $100. Instead, his friend, who is free but served decades with him in the MDOC (Mississippi Department of Corrections), is going to send it. Years ago, Ruth was able to purchase all of William’s favorites and make a care package that she would then mail directly to the prison. She could shop at discount stores or buy in bulk to keep the price down. A jar of peanut butter, or a can of instant coffee or tuna, let William know that Ruth cared. These food items were also supplements to the unappealing, and often unhealthy, small portions he was served behind bars. Since then, however, Mississippi prisons prohibited families from sending care packages directly to their loved ones, and instead required them to buy care packages through a privatized service.

Prisons across the country have stopped accepting care packages directly from families, arguing that it’s the best way to prevent drugs and weapons from entering facilities. More and more facilities have in turn privatized care packages, forcing families to purchase expensive, preapproved products through private vendors. Companies that sell care packages often combine multiple services, such as phone and commissary, into one contract with a corrections facility. In 2012, the Keefe Group, which is contracted with Mississippi facilities through its affiliate companies Keefe Commissary Network and Access Securepak, reported net sales of over $375 million from care package, commissary, and technology programs. In 2017, the New York State Department of Corrections piloted a program that used a secure vendor program for care packages, a practice they said was used in nearly thirty other states. After outrage from families and reform advocates, New York governor Andrew Cuomo instructed the department of corrections to “rescind its flawed policy.”3

The cost is only part of the issue for the families. The Andersons feel it’s too early in the morning for a bag of junk food. “We don’t need that mess,” Ruth says. Sitting tall in his chair, William leans back and grabs his kangaroo pouch of a tummy. “This is my only problem,” he teases. “I know,” Ruth shoots back. “That’s diabetes and high blood pressure,” she predicts. Ruth is right. Long-term health consequences can be a result of prison diets. Menu analysis at prisons across the country found incarcerated people were served diets too high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and sodium, and were too low in fiber—all factors linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Researchers have found that incarcerated people suffer disproportionately from hypertension, heart problems, and diabetes—all preventable with a healthy diet. This unhealthy diet reduces life expectancy by two years for every year of incarceration and is part of the reason why black men are less healthy than white men. And the habits of a prison diet are hard to break, even after release: The Whole Shabang chip that was once only sold in prisons, and has 90 percent of the daily recommended sodium, is now sold online by stores outside of prison because former prisoners missed them so much. A six-pack case of six-ounce bags sold directly from the Keefe Group costs $18.99, while the same size variety pack can be found on Amazon for $59.99.

Ruth stays in William’s ear to make the best decisions he can with what’s offered. That means staying away from chips, candy bars, and ramen; limiting canned meats; and avoiding some parts of his prison meal if it has too much salt. Ruth recognizes that her husband doesn’t really have a choice and that poor eating is an unfortunate part of prison life. “You have to work on it,” she tells him. William does have high blood pressure, but Ruth knows eating healthy behind bars is nearly impossible. “They don’t have very much to choose from.” She wants him to live long so they can restart their clock one day. William, the more lighthearted of the two, chuckles, then takes a sip of his water. When their three sons were young, the Andersons indulged in snacks because they were there for hours and the kids needed to eat. But those days are long gone. It’s just her and William most Saturdays. Occasionally, she’ll bring their grandchildren.

The conversation pivots toward William’s new look. He’s sporting a longer-than-usual goatee this week, and it’s far more salt than pepper. “Uh-uh,” Ruth says shaking her head with a smile. She knows when her husband is trying to sneak a new look by her. This time he’s giving away their age. “If you were home, I’d brush through it with Gray Away,” she teases. William shakes his head, grabs his wife’s hands in his, rubs it, and grins. He likes it and plans to keep the new look, but Ruth usually gets what she wants. The Andersons use the time alone to catch up, though much of it is spent talking about their three adult sons and six grandchildren. Two of their grandchildren wanted to come on the visit, but it meant Ruth would have to go forty minutes in the opposite direction to pick them up. It would have been too much of a strain for her this week.

Since 2004, Ruth’s commute has been shorter because William put in a request to transfer and was moved fewer than twenty miles away from home, so it’s just a thirty-minute drive. It’s a relief from the earlier years when Ruth struggled to stitch together her separated clan; visits—no matter how far—were the seam.

William went to prison in 1981. Ruth was pregnant, and they had a nine-year-old son, Kevin. William was held at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, located over 140 miles away from Ruth. Across the country, families of prisoners often make long treks for that fleeting visiting moment. The majority of people in state prisons are held over one hundred miles away from families (and five hundred miles for federal prisons). Most prisons aren’t accessible by public transportation, thus limiting a family’s ability to visit altogether.

Ruth found a few options that helped her make the commute in the early days. She used a bus service that picked up riders at a mall a short distance from her home. She remembers paying the driver about $25 to join the nearly thirty other passengers. Before the sun came up, she boarded the bus, Kevin by her side, and the baby, Robert, in her arms. The bus chugged out of the city onto the highway, past several towns and through a countryside dotted with catfish farms, cotton fields, and cow pastures. Sometimes the bus took far longer than the expected two-and-a-half hours. But Ruth bonded with other families during the ride or over a breakfast stop at a McDonald’s. The return trips were the longest. Sitting in traffic, many families asleep, Ruth watched day ease into night.

“I met so many people on that bus,” she reflects. Over the years, she watched families come and go as their loved ones got released from prison. Eventually, she met a new set of people and saw the same thing happen. After a few years, she says, the bus service stopped and she joined a community shared-ride service. A man named Andrew drove a van and picked everyone up at their homes. He started out around four o’clock in the morning, which was earlier than the bus. Ruth always hoped she’d be the last pickup, so she could sleep in a little. The bus and van, if they could afford it, were rides that families could rely on. They paid, boarded, and relaxed until they arrived.

Ruth speaks slowly and deliberately, making each word feel pertinent. “I was younger and all that time…” she says, trailing off, captive in her own thoughts. “I didn’t know these many years was gonna pass ’cause it was just starting out. I could take it better,” she remembers. Ask Ruth how she’s survived and she’ll point to God, to her faith, to the love she and William share, and most important, to her family.

NEITHER WILLIAM NOR RUTH could have envisioned their current life when they met as teenagers at a movie theater in 1970. William was sixteen, Ruth was fourteen. “I just happen to see her sitting over there by herself,” William recalls blissfully. He was there with a few friends, a weekend tradition. He can’t remember the movie. “We didn’t go there for the movies,” he jokes. “We were going to try to meet girls.” It didn’t always work out in their favor, he admits. Ruth was sitting by herself, her slanted eyes fixed on the big screen, her copper-toned skin bright under the screen’s flashes, her billowing red Afro the show stopper. William had to say something. Ruth appeared to be alone at the movie theater, but her mother always made her older brother go with her. Lucky for William, he was somewhere else in the theater, so he made his move. He approached the girl with the red hair and asked if he could sit down. She agreed.

Like most lovers whose story began long ago, William tries to say, “We started from there,” and end the retelling of their love story there, implying that the rest of how they became a couple is history and the details didn’t matter. But it wasn’t that easy. Ruth and William sat and talked for a while at the theater and he scored her number, or so he thought. When William got home the night they met, he unfolded the number from the girl now coined the Red Hammer. He dialed the number and got a disconnection signal. “She gave me the wrong phone number,” he recalls, shock still lingering in his voice. “She wrote the right phone number down, then she scratched through it, and gave me a wrong number.” Holding the piece of paper up to the light, then peering at it from different angles, he was able to see the number she’d scratched out. He called it, and it was the right one.

Ruth’s mouth fell open when she heard his voice on the other end of the phone. “I thought I had dogged him,” she tells me playfully. “Then he all of a sudden called me and I’m like, how did you figure that out?” At the time, Ruth was seeing another boy and she wasn’t buying someone else claiming to be moved by her. “Nah, I don’t really know about him,” she recalls thinking back then. “Naw, I don’t want him to have my phone number,” she concluded. She realized he might see her at the theater again, as it was the only place to catch a movie in Jackson, but she took the chance of giving him the wrong number anyway. “I just didn’t take him serious. Really, I was like, I’m finna get rid of him,” she says laughing. She doesn’t laugh easily, but when she does, it’s authentic, traveling from her stomach, and it’s usually about a memory of her and William.

But back then there was no je ne sais quoi. “It wasn’t like instant, first sight. He grew on me,” she remembers. “For real.” Ruth was smart, and a popular majorette. “She had all them lil boys runnin’ behind her,” William recalls. “I had stiff competition.” During their conversation, Ruth mentioned she was going to The Jackson 5 concert the next day. William thought it was the perfect opportunity to see her again. “It was something about her and I wanted to find her,” he recalls. He and a few friends snuck in the back door of the concert and William started on his mission to find the Red Hammer. “I looked for her. I couldn’t find her in no coliseum with all them people,” he says, bemused at his youthful desire. “From then on, it was just like he was stalking me,” Ruth adds, laughing. “A coliseum?” she asks rhetorically, baffled at William thinking he could find her in a stadium that held ten thousand people. He didn’t find her that day.

“I tell her right today, ‘Well, you know I fell in love with you the first day.’ She don’t believe it, but I’m telling her the truth,” he insists. Ask him how he knew it was love at first sight and uncertainty dances in his voice. “I don’t know. It was just something about her.

That something fueled his pursuit of Ruth. There was also a small detail about the movie theater meeting that Ruth had first left out. “I did kiss him,” she admits with a giggle. “So I guess he thought I was gonna be his girlfriend.”

Ruth tells William it was the kiss that put a spell on him that day. He disagrees, saying a man gets one chance to meet the right woman, and when he does, he better be prepared to do everything in his power to get her.

He did.

William took Ruth to the movies, out to eat, and on picnics by the reservoir. They shared secrets, went to sports matches, cut class, and then made up the missed homework together. Ruth began taking his romantic interest seriously.

Soon they were inseparable. “I said, well, he real serious about it, maybe I have to go with this boy,” Ruth said matter-of-factly. William hitchhiked and sometimes walked the nearly three miles to Ruth’s house. “William hung on to me like glue and I said, well maybe this is the one,” she says. “I’m just blessed I won out,” William concludes.

They didn’t attend the same school or live in the same neighborhood. Ruth’s family was middle class. She lived in a new house in a neighborhood called Georgetown with her mother, siblings, and father, who was a disabled veteran and cab owner. Her neighborhood was home to the same teachers who taught her in school, and to other black working professionals.

William was an only child and lived with his mother, who worked in a nursing home. Their apartment was in West Jackson near the historically black Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) and steps away from the local NAACP office. His parents separated before he was born, but he saw his dad often. “He still used to come over. My momma let him in, they spent the night. I used to go over to his house sometime. They had that type of relationship.”

Ruth couldn’t have company at her house, so William snuck into the side entrance. He did this for months. Soon, his mother went with him to a jewelry store. “I had bought her a lil ole cheap promise ring. You couldn’t even see the diamonds in it,” he says chuckling. “You would call it a bubble gum ring nowadays,” he admits. “Back then it was something.” It was enough for Ruth.

William’s mother died in early 1971, which brought the couple together even closer. Soon the teenagers found themselves sitting on a curb talking about getting married. Later, William asked Ruth’s mother for permission to marry her daughter. “I don’t know about that,” Ruth recalls her mom saying. “You have to ask her daddy.” William was terrified of Ruth’s father, who was stern and known to give scorching lectures. He would repeat himself over and over, Ruth remembers. It started with, “Look here boy, marriage is a huge responsibility.… Boy, you know this is a big responsibility. It’s a big responsibility.” William was trembling. The preaching continued for a while. “It’s a big responsibility, you ready for that?” William was nervous, but he said, “Yes sir, I know it.” Ruth remembers peeking from another room at a nervous William sitting at the table with her father. She burst into laughter at the memory.

In July 1972, still in high school, when he was eighteen and she was sixteen, they got married. They had a rustic, outdoor ceremony in a neighbor’s backyard near Ruth’s home. His mother had left him the apartment and her car, which was paid off, and he was receiving a Social Security check, which helped him provide a life for his bride. As a new husband, he also began working. He found a job on the night shift at a meat packing house, where he loaded trucks until the early morning hours. These hours resulted in him dozing off during class. He didn’t finish his last year of high school.

Ruth was completing her senior year when she got pregnant. They welcomed their first son, Kevin, in 1973. The young couple was just living, trying to be happy, and make it in the South. “Basically, trying to keep our lil heads above the water,” William recalled. William continued working. After they had Kevin, Ruth started working at Shoney’s, a drive-in restaurant. She worked the cash register and bussed tables, and when it was her time to clean the parking lot, William came to help her. When they weren’t working, they had family outings: trips to the reservoir, movies, the countryside, or the zoo. They took a drive to Vicksburg to look at the statues. They had friends over for BBQs and went to concerts when they could.

William continued working at the packing house at night and worked at a gas company during the day, until he got fired from his night job. One day, a white associate who worked in the receiving side of the warehouse, scanning packages, referred to him as boy. William got upset, shot a few choice words at the man, and was fired. “It just didn’t sit well with me,” William reflected. The man was in his fifties and William was the youngest male there. He felt like he was doing hard physical labor and wanted the same respect as his colleagues. Ruth’s mother lectured him when she found out, reminding him you can’t leave a job because someone calls you a name. It was a bad time to lose a job—their apartment had just burned down and he had recently purchased a new car that he had to make payments on.

William had reason to attach meaning to the incident. Living in Jackson was a constant show of volatile race relations. He’d seen racism, discrimination, and flat out disregard for black bodies. He lived within walking distance of Jackson State College, and his mother shoved him under the bed at the tattering of gunshots when police open fired on the campus. Lynch Street, a major street that bisected the campus and linked West Jackson to downtown, was said to be the site of confrontation between black and white residents. Black students said they were harassed by white motorists who drove through the campus yelling racial slurs from their windows. On May 14, 1970, black students reportedly responded to the harassment of the white motorists by throwing rocks at their cars, according to reports.


  • "A solid combination of research, compassion, and anger that sheds light on a highly flawed system."—Kirkus
  • "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."—BookPage
  • "Journalist Sylvia A. Harvey presents this urgent and compassionate call for change in the oppressive system of mass incarceration in the US."
    Ms. Magazine
  • "America's mass incarceration system is a monster producing limitless stories about the bodies it has devoured and the bones it has spat out. But, for the first time, Sylvia A. Harvey chronicles the collateral damage of this ravenous injustice industry by giving voice to the heartbreaking stories of the families that constitute its collateral damage."—Michael Harriot, TheRoot
  • "My brother was imprisoned for 30 years. I know firsthand just how devastating the impact of imprisonment is on a family. Sylvia A. Harvey's The Shadow System is an emotionally powerful and devastating analysis of how the prison system punishes and profits from families caught in its clutches. This urgent book makes us aware that some of the heaviest costs of incarceration are borne by children and families."—Michael Eric Dyson, NewYork Times bestselling author

On Sale
Apr 7, 2020
Page Count
288 pages
Bold Type Books

Sylvia A. Harvey

About the Author

Sylvia A. Harvey reports at the intersection of race, class, and policy. Her work has appeared in The Nation, VQR, ELLE, Colorlines, the Feminist Wire, the New York Post, and more. She is the recipient of a National Headliner Award and a National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Salute to Excellence award. The Oakland native holds a BA in sociology from Columbia University and a MS in journalism from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Harvey lives in New York City.

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