When Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream speech”, there was no way that he could have imagined that a new system would be born. Born from the ashes of slavery and Jim Crow, a new system of racial and social control; that would trap millions as second class citizens. A system known as Mass Incarceration.
America ‘s current population accounts for approximately four percent of the world ‘s population. Of this four percent, America accounts for twenty-five percent of global incarceration, nearly 2.2 million people. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over the last thirty years (since 1984), the number has skyrocketed over four-hundred percent.
As the number of incarcerated persons in the U.S. continue to rise cataclysmically, crime rates have declined consistently for nearly twenty-four years. So then, what is contributing to the increase of U.S. prison population? The answer lies not within the changes in crime rates, but rather in the changes of policies. Policies such as sentencing laws, and racial profiling all caused by Reagan’s creation of the War on Drugs. (A “war” that costs America approximately twenty billion dollars a year as well as the yearly incarceration of 100,000 people (mostly African-Americans.) )Order now
The largest proponents of mass incarceration are the private prison companies who are making gargantuan profits from their inmates. According to the American Civil Liberty Union the two largest prison companies (The Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO group inc.) generated $3,000,000,000 in revenue. Private prisons were non-existent until the 1980s when U.S. state and federal governments needed a solution to the overcrowding public prisons caused by the war on drugs. As reported by the Justice Policy Institute, between the years 2002 and 2012 the three largest private prisons in America spent nearly $45 million, lobbying bills, as well as a spent yearly cost of $100,000 in elections for state legislators and judges. It was revealed in 2011, that the CCA and the GEO group inc. signed agreements with state governments guaranteeing high prison occupancy rates. One contract between Pennsylvania and the CCA requires 90-100 % occupancy in the CCA correctional facilities. If the agreement is unmet than the state must find more inmates to meet the quota or pay expenses to the CCA for unused beds. Private Prisons went so far as to bribe officials into getting their beds filled with inmates.
For the last forty years, the criminal justice system of america has been monopolized by aggressive and discriminatory laws that have lead to the mass incarceration of millions of americans. The nation ‘s prison industrial complex worsens not only the injustices in America, but also undermines the legitimacy of the current justice system. Coupled with private prisons and corporate funding, the prison industrial complex has been an insurmountable force that has thwarted many reform attempts. However due to the failure of the war on drugs and its vast socio-economic consequences, people have begun supporting alternative policies. “In nearly every state of the country, a political premium has developed in favor of containing correctional costs, scrutinizing proposals for further growth, and considering strategies to downsize correctional populations and budgets that were out of the question just a few years ago.” (Smith)
In our nation, we believe prisoners as being external to our society. But yet, millions of inmates are released each year, into a society they are completely unprepared for. Because of solitary confinement and other punishments more often than not convicts have an increased rate of violence against the public, as well as an increased rate in committing an act of crime. Yet if they had some form of corrections (as seen in European countries), ex-convicts would have a statistically higher rate of success in society. Today’s prisoners are tomorrow ‘s neighbors, that is why we must reform our current policies if we have hope for tomorrow ‘s future.
While their has been some progress against the prison industrial complex in the United States, as seen in the reduce in both crime and incarceration in states such as Texas, California, and Georgia, these proposed solutions only allocate short-term relief and fixes to the penal system. They, by in large, will not provide the systematic changes needed to end mass incarceration. To end the prison industrial complex, we must create a national solution. Although some may say that under the constitution, the criminal justice system is a state problem and affair, thus preventing the creation of a national solution, the formation of a national solution would cause the creation of stronger state reforms.
In order to end mass incarceration we must first reform the criminal justice system to end prison sentencing for nonviolent and low-level crimes. This would result in an incarceration rate reduction of nearly 45.5% of inmates. Rather than sending them to jail, criminals of nonviolent and low-level crimes would be sent to rehabilitation programs where they would receive proper psychiatric and medical treatment. More than half of the prisoners in america today suffer from mental health and/or drug addiction issues. Currently prisons do not treat health issues; but by forcing prisons and or creating rehabilitation centers, hopefully the ex-convicts will be able to become productive members of society. By sending criminals of non-violent crimes to rehabilitation programs, low-income communities would be able to rebuild their communities as fathers, sons, and grandfathers will remain in there rather than being sent away to a cement block. By allotting these communities the chance to rebuild, they will once again be able to contribute to the economy thus by in large increasing the American economy. While in rehabilitation programs the convicts will receive or begin to receive education, allowing their chance of societal elevation to increase.
Another reform to the American penal system that must happen is the reduction of mandatory sentences set by current criminal justice laws. As incarceration rates increase, so has the amount of time spent in jail. According to the Sentencing Project, the average prison stay has increased 36% since 1990. In order to fix this rise, we must reduce the mandatory minimum sentences as they are often unequal to the crimes committed as seen earlier in the discussion of the disparity surrounding crack versus powder cocaine. While some people may think to eliminate the sentencing laws entirely, thus restoring the decision of sentence length to judges, this would once again result in racial inequality and discrimination as the sole decision of sentence length would be placed on the judges. Thus we must reduce the mandatory minimum sentences, rather than purely eliminate.
Thirdly, to reform mass incarceration we must end the privatization of jails. No longer can people make money on the punishment of others. Privatized jails results in the inhumane treatment and torture of millions of Americans (who are mostly juveniles.) By eliminating privatized jails, we would not only end the horrid treatment of thousands of prisoners but we would also be setting a standard of all American prisons. Standards such as free healthcare for both physical and psychiatric problems would implemented to all american prisons. These new standards would allow convicts not only basic human rights that they are currently being denied, but also drastically decrease the US’s high recidivism rate as convicts would have the proper tools to function in society.
To further lower the recidivism rate for this country we must allow ex-convicts the ability to use all public programs such as welfare, public housing and public loans. By doing so we would be giving ex-convicts the necessary aid to live and function in our society. Through this allowment we would reduce their isolation in society thus reducing not only recidivism but also the extremely high rates of homelessness and suicide among ex-convicts. Another change in policy that must happen if we hope for the success of ex-convicts in our society would be the adoption of “block the box” legislation. With this adoption of the legislation we would eliminate the employee discrimination against ex-convicts and allow them an equal chance at getting a job.
These proposed policies are just the tipping point of what must happen. Although they will provide relief and many opportunities to our convicted citizens it is not just policies that will help end the complex system of mass incarceration, but also the bipartisan cooperation of our local, state, and federal government.
In the United States, there are two americas. One, is the viable America. The America that is connected to its own economy, and where there is a plausible future for the ones born into it. But there is another America as well. One where opportunity and forgiveness are scarce. Those caught possessing recreational drugs are sent to prison for fifty years or more, never seeing their families and communities again, but rather a six by ten cement block. It doesn’t matter if they had a mental illness that led them to prison, or an unfair judgment because of their skin color. All that matters is that they fill a bed, so that private prison companies will make their pay. This is the current system of mass incarceration in America. Although America currently incarcerates a quarter of all prisoners in the world, people do nothing. 2.2 million citizens are missing from the nation, yet we see it as perfectly fine as these men, women, and children are criminals. Yes, they are criminals but they are also people. People who in our current prison system are being denied the basic human rights.
Most prisoners are being tortured with solitary confinement, spending up to seven years with little to no human contact, with no way out. Those who are placed in confinement are not violent criminals but rather African American non-violent criminals. Non-violent criminals who often turned to crime because they are victims of our failed education system, or their parent had been in jail. Our prison system and current justice system is not a war on criminals but a war on the poor, created by the war on drugs and the war on crime. Everyday we see our failures of our justice system play out in police brutality and riots across the country, yet policy makers have done little to nothing to fix the issue. We must fix our prison system through reforms of rehabilitation rather than punishments, if we want our nation to succeed, for without any reform our nation will continue to burn. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”