(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
The Literacy Guild

Opinion: The United States prison system is deeply flawed and demands reform

On January 31, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. But there was a loophole.

Slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished, except as a punishment for a crime. Once you are arrested and convicted of a crime, you become a slave to the state. From slavery to the Jim Crow era to mass incarceration, the machine of the oppressor continues. 

As reported by the National Research Council, a 2011 study done by the International Centre for Prison Studies found that approximately 10.1 million people are incarcerated worldwide. In 2009, the United States had an incarcerated population of 2.29 million.

The population of Earth is about seven billion people, while the United States only has around 330 million. The United States is around five percent of the world’s population, but it holds a quarter of the world’s total incarcerated population.

That’s a lot.

It puts the United States at the top of the list as the country with the highest incarcerated population, as well as the country with the most prisoners per 100,000 people, according to the NRC.

Inside the prison, inmates work for meager to no pay, suffer through inhumane practices and don’t receive proper healthcare. After prison, former inmates are turned away from job opportunities and are poverty-stricken. Our criminal justice system emphasizes crime to gain support for punishment. 

The NRC has also reported on the abominable conditions inside prisons. For men, the degrading, violent and predatory culture of prisons creates an environment that harms inmates and makes it more difficult to succeed in a society outside of prison.

Deprived of personal property, dignity and privacy, inmates are mentally and physically abused without repercussions. In addition to the many problems already faced by male inmates, female inmates face threats of sexual assault and under-resourced treatments.

According to the Detroit Metro Times, food provided for inmates has been reported to be infested by maggots. The NRC also reports that prison guards aren’t trained in empathy and can be overly aggressive. Extreme problems like overcrowding and long-term isolation can cause hallucinations, depression, psychological regression and even cognitive dysfunction. 

Along with poor living conditions, many inmates are part of the penal labor system. Thought to be rehabilitative, prison labor is common. It is seen as a way to pay back the costs of incarceration as well as the cost of the crimes committed by the inmates, as reported by The Atlantic.

However, prison laborers aren’t protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act or the Labor Relations Act, two acts that protect laborers from being exploited and overworked. Prisoners are often paid between nothing to cents an hour, much lower than the minimum wage. Inmates are, under the 13th Amendment, able to be forced into involuntary servitude.

While you may think that those in prison are deserving of these terrible conditions, I would ask you to reconsider.

I am not trying to be lenient on our inmates. People who commit crimes should go to prison for a justified length of time. The victims of crimes deserve justice. Inmates should be punished for their crimes, but a loss of freedom is enough.

The loss of other human rights reduces our prison system from an institution of change to a lawless and corrupt establishment. As explained by Business Insider, our prison system based on punishment and torture has never been proven to work, with one of the highest recidivism rates in the world. 

Furthermore, while the punishment heavy prison system of America has been proven to cause mental health problems as well as pathways back into criminality, rehabilitative prison systems like those of Denmark and Norway have some of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, according to the Washington Post.

In these Scandinavian countries, inmates are treated like people. That means no bars on windows, choice in clothing, no barbed wire fences and opportunities to pursue interests. According to the BBC, inmates still have their human rights; they have access to education, good healthcare and even their voting rights.

As reported by Newsweek, in 2013, there were only eight total deaths throughout the Danish prison system, while there were 4,446 deaths in American jails and prisons. If you treat inmates with little respect, you can then expect little respect back. The Scandinavian prison system is not perfect, but it provides an alternative model for punishment heavy systems like ours in America. 

The inhumanity of our current prison system is exacerbated by the inequality within the system. There are major funding differences for women’s prisons compared to men’s prisons, as well as acute racial disparities. 

Many of the racial problems faced by the American prison system stem from the dramatic rise of incarceration that started in the 1970s. Started by President Nixon, the war on drugs was purportedly meant to eradicate illicit drug use in the United States, but it instead increased racial divides in prison and created a disconnect between citizens and the police.

Nixon established and increased federal drug control agencies and pushed for policies like mandatory minimum sentencing and no-knock warrants. These policies disproportionately attacked Black and Hispanic communities, racially profiling innocent people of color, according to the American Bar Association

Policies set by Nixon were the foundation of the drug hysteria of the Reagan era. From 1980 to 1997, people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 to 400,000, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. With the introduction of crack cocaine into mainstream media, the war on drugs exploded.

While cocaine was mostly found in rich suburban white areas, crack was associated with urban areas and was used mostly by people of color who couldn’t afford cocaine.

According to 13th, a documentary by Ava DuVernay, after Congress passed mandatory sentences for crack that were much harsher than the sentences for powder cocaine, one ounce of crack could get you the same amount of time as one hundred ounces of cocaine. In doing so, they knowingly targeted Black and Hispanic communities while being lax on white communities. For the same drug, Black and Hispanic communities were punished more severely.  

Racial divides in prison were exacerbated by the war on drugs. Most crack dealers and people in possession of crack were Black and Hispanic people living in the inner-city. Just like most cocaine dealers and people in possession of powder cocaine were white and lived in more suburban areas.

But because of deliberate messaging, we are trained to believe that only the Black and Hispanic dealers deserve what they get. Yes, drug dealing is criminal, but disproportionately attacking one subsection of drug dealers is not and can never be justified. And when the group that is being attacked is Black and Hispanic dealers, just because they are Black or Hispanic, it’s racist, pure and simple.

This racism wasn’t subconscious or unintentional; Nixon was trying to target Black and Hispanic communities.

A top Nixon aide named John Ehrlichman admitted that they “Knew [they] couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, [they] could disrupt those communities,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

With the public easily convinced that every Black or Hispanic man was a drug dealer, the prejudices they faced were written off as justified because they could be dangerous.

The idea that any race of humans can be inherently dangerous is a racist view in it of itself, but because that sentiment was now present throughout society, police officers could easily detain members of these communities using stop-and-frisk laws and traffic stops. This greatly increased the power of police officers, giving them the ability to act on their racial biases.  

Mass incarceration has been and still is a large problem in America. The United States still has the highest incarcerated population in the world, as well as one of the highest recidivism rates in the world.

Our prison system hasn’t been proven to be better than the rehabilitative prison systems of Scandinavia or other parts of the world; in fact, it has actually been proven to be quite worse.

This isn’t a problem that can be easily fixed with a couple of laws and policies; it is deeply embedded in our society. But this is no longer a problem hidden behind curtains; mainstream media has been exposing the prison system for what it is, a legal form of oppression.

The United States of America has never been the land of the free, not when millions of our own people are stripped of their human rights behind bars.