“Prisons are the bad conscience of the liberal imagination.” – Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
America is the most incarcerated nation on Earth. More than 2.2 million adults are behind bars in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails, for a total of 0.91% (or 1 out of 110) of the total U.S. resident population. Even though America has less than 5% of the world’s population, we have almost 25% of the world’s total prison population—and our incarceration rate of 716 prison inmates per 100,000 people leads the world, making us an even bigger jailer-per-capita than brutal, repressive regimes like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. The “land of the free” seems to have a special passion for locking people up.
The U.S. prison population and national incarceration rate increased significantly starting in the 1980s, in part in response to rising crime rates during the 1960s and 1970s, and in part because of the war on drugs and its accompanying “tough on crime” policies such as mandatory minimum prison sentences. The past 30 years have become known as the “era of mass incarceration.”
The 2016 presidential election has brought criminal justice reform to the forefront of the national political debate, and there seems to be a rare bipartisan consensus growing that America’s system of overcrowded, revolving-door prisons needs an overhaul. So let’s go back to first principles. Why does America need prisons? What purpose should prisons serve in a “free” democratic society?
Of course, there are some people who are so violent, dangerous and incorrigible that they need to be kept away from society forever. But most prisoners eventually get released from prison; very few prison inmates are irredeemable killers serving life without parole. In theory, a prison sentence is supposed to be a way for offenders to “pay their debt to society” and make positive changes in their lives so they can become productive citizens. Prison is supposed to be a constructive intervention in the lives of people who are causing harm to their fellow humans and to themselves, and who need to be set back on the right path—hence the term, “Department of Corrections.”
But these positive, hopeful results are not what we’re getting from our expensive prison system. In fact, America’s prisons seem to be doing more harm than good. Many people in prison are there for nonviolent offenses, especially related to drugs. According to data cited by FiveThirtyEight, 48.6% of federal prison inmates, and 16% of state prisoners, are behind bars for drug-related offenses. Why should people have years of their lives stolen from them, and have their future career potential destroyed, just for possessing pieces of a plant? And even for users of the most ruinous, dangerous drugs like meth and heroin—why is addiction or misguided self-medication treated as a crime against the state?
America’s era of mass incarceration has ruined many lives, torn families apart, and decimated black inner-city neighborhoods (just like so many of America’s unjust public policies, mass incarceration has disproportionately targeted black people). Studies have even suggested that mass incarceration is causing more crime than it prevents—since time spent in prison tends to ruin people’s job prospects and turn small-time nonviolent offenders into hardened criminals who are likely to re-offend after they get out.
And perhaps the most troubling implications of America’s era of mass incarceration are related to the rise of for-profit prisons and low-wage prison labor. As reported in Paste Magazine, American prisoners are paid incredibly low wages (74 cents to $3.34 per day) to do work for highly profitable corporations such as McDonald’s, Walmart, GEICO and more. “The land of the free,” which officially abolished slavery in 1865, seems to have quietly created an invisible, insidious system of prison slave labor where people toil behind bars for a pittance, while helping big corporations make big profits.
Prisons are supposed to be a public good; something that we, the people, agree is necessary and worth paying for with our tax dollars in order to provide for the general welfare. But instead, America’s system of mass incarceration is creating powerful incentives for the justice system to keep locking up as many poor, brown people as possible; to keep these (predominantly black and brown) people working behind bars for pitifully low wages while “tough on crime” politicians deliver high-paying prison guard jobs to (predominantly white) economically depressed rural communities. Prison has become a big business. America’s prisons are a way of, as The Wire creator David Simon says, “monetizing the poor.”
But if there is one underappreciated lesson from American history, it is this: if you keep punishing people unfairly, if you keep pushing people too far, eventually they fight back. Even when they are the most despised, most ignored, most invisible people in America—such as prison inmates.
Forty-five years ago, in September 1971, prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York seized control of the prison, took 42 guards hostage, and demanded improvements in their facility’s living conditions. Prisoners at Attica were given one shower a week and one roll of toilet paper per month; the state spent only 63 cents per day on food for each inmate, which meant that many inmates went to bed hungry. The prison was also rife with racist abuse and harassment of the (mostly black) inmates by the (mostly white) guards.
The Attica uprising was not a carefully planned, premeditated action—the prisoners seemed confused and initially there was disorder and violence; several sexual assaults occurred among the prisoners and one guard was severely beaten and later died of his injuries. But the inmates soon established a sense of order within the crowded prison yard. They were allowed to speak to the media, and one of the prisoners appointed as spokesperson, L.D. Barkley, said proudly to the TV cameras: “We are men! We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.” The Attica uprising was violent, but it was also a cry for calm and an appeal for basic human dignity in a prison system that undermined and denied its inmates’ dignity every day.
Four days after the Attica uprising, New York state troopers stormed the prison with guns and shot 39 people to death, including 29 inmates and 10 hostages. The state troopers and prison guards tortured the recaptured prisoners, forcing them to strip naked and run through a gauntlet of swinging batons. The Attica uprising failed to bring significant, widespread prison reforms—if anything, white America’s fear of the angry, defiant, well-organized black prison inmates likely helped give rise to the era of “tough on crime” and greater public support for the death penalty.
But the Attica inmates made an important statement: for a few days, they were not invisible. Today’s prison strikes, even if mainstream media is ignoring them, are trying to send a similar message. We, as Americans, need to be aware of what is happening in our prison system. We can’t just lock people up and then refuse to look at what happens to them on our watch, on our dime, in our names. Prison inmates are not just numbers; they are people. And most of them will one day rejoin society. They deserve more respect and support than our system is currently giving them.
America tends to be very reluctant to learn anything from its history or correct its ongoing mistakes, but maybe it’s time to reassess what we really want from our prison system, and ask bigger questions about why we have prisons in the first place. Prisons don’t have to be harsh, punitive places; Norway’s prisons offer pleasant, college-dorm-like housing, provide job training, and focus on actually rehabilitating people and preparing them for life after prison. But is this just a bunch of softheaded, criminal-coddling Euro-socialist liberal nonsense? Well, it seems to work: Norway’s recidivism rate is only 20% (one of the lowest in the world), while 76% of American prisoners are re-arrested within 5 years of release.
One of the interesting findings from this Washington Post article is that America has the world’s highest incarceration rate, but we also tend to spend a lot less money than other “advanced” countries on social services. Instead of a safety net, America offers its poor people a prison cell. Instead of intervening in the lives of our poor people and at-risk children with proactive, generous social services programs (early childhood education, universal health insurance, job training, free college tuition, etc.) like many other countries, America tends to intervene in the lives of poor people only after they’ve committed crimes or gotten caught selling drugs. Instead of intervening with prevention, we intervene with punishment. And it costs us all in ways that we’re still beginning to understand.