The Bridge has returned and is eager to lay out our generation’s discontent with our criminal justice system’s version of Mass Incarceration in America. We don’t have the expertise or the word count to break down the vastness of this topic. It’s YUGE and yet it is one of the few things in which there is bipartisan agreement--it’s broken. People have dedicated their lives to understanding the full breadth of the system, they have written powerful books, and created award-winning documentaries to take us through the depths of this sprawling topic.
The combination of mass incarceration and for-profit prisons, with goals contrary to the holistic well being of our society, has created a reality that is less than ethical. According to the American Psychological Association (2014), “policies have packed prisons and jails to the bursting point, largely with poor, uneducated people of color, about half of whom suffer from mental health problems.” Prisons are becoming an industry indicated by the basic fact that crime rates are not growing, but the number of inmates are.
Privatization of our prisons has added to the already expansive list of incentives for putting people behind bars. The foundation for mass incarceration has been laid through racial resentment, political opportunism (See the Willie Horton ad that elevated George H.W. Bush to victory over Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election), geographic segregation, and structural discrepancies in how we conduct law enforcement.
Mass incarceration sits at the center of many contentious issues. However, we want to view our prison system through lenses more fashionable to our generation’s future aspirations. A fortunate consequence of harboring the most educated generation in our nation’s history, is that issues no longer come into focus in just black and white. Our rapport with nuance is a real strength, and the more clearly we can discern between varying shades, the more likely we are to see our interconnectedness to the varied issues in question. Realizing how our choices in life affect our society, and vice-versa, is the first step to contemplating solutions. We must be INVESTED.
The generation we follow certainly laid the foundations of the social equalities we cherish, at least on a theoretical level. However, the greatest middle class in World history, stood by as the government programs that fostered their very growth were corporatized. Forfeiting an essential civic duty, like our justice and correctional system, strips us from the opportunity to uphold our constitutional values, and hinders our effort to form a more perfect union.
The Ground Rule for today: Perceive our current prison system as a part of our society--not outside of it-- if we are to develop the political will needed to reform it. We cannot expect to rehabilitate a broken system if we aren’t willing to reintegrate ourselves into one, whole, community.
"For decades, our broken criminal justice system has held our nation back from realizing its full potential; mass incarceration has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, drained our economy, compromised public safety, hurt our children and disproportionately affected communities of color while devaluing the very idea of justice in America." -Senator Cory Booker
Piper Kerman, Adnan Syed, Steven Avery, Brandon Dassey, and countless others have emerged in recent years as figures of pop culture. What unites all of their stories is not only their shared experience in all having served prison sentences, but rather the un-comfortability we, the American public, feel when hearing their stories. Something feels wrong; something has gone wrong, not with the alleged crimes they have committed, but with the system itself.
Many watch Orange is the New Black, listen to Serial, or binge Making a Murderer and think “I can’t believe this happened to them.” I am here to argue that this is the wrong attitude: this isn’t a problem that afflicts just one or two people featured by the media—it is not an exception to the rule. Injustices in the criminal justice system, prison violence, abuses by prison guards, sexual abuses, overpopulation, discrimination of racial and sexual minorities, discrimination of lower income communities who cannot afford legal services or bail, improper allocation of healthcare, death sentences, discrimination and improper treatment of mental illness, absurdly long mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes, to be placed in a prison other than one’s identified gender, and the utter destruction of a person’s life through labeling them as a “felon” are happening widespread. These injustices affect who we are and what we stand for as a society and as a nation. We as a democratic republic, and a free society, must demand better.
We millennials who are left-leaning are quick to speak out against social injustices. We protest for Black Lives Matter, for LGBTQ+ rights, for feminism, and many more causes that all assert the universality of equality and human rights. This egalitarianism cannot stop short from looking into how we treat our prisoners. To be a convicted criminal sentences you to prison--but it should never sentence you to rape, to live in fear, to live without proper medication, to share a small cell with many others, or to not live in a cell at all—rather a tent in the hot Arizona sun, to regular beatings by other prisoners and prison guards, to mal-or undernourishment, or to be treated in any way as sub-human. A prison sentence means just that: it sentences you to the physical confinement and separation of being in prison—not the torturous life in which many find themselves. Prisoners, otherwise known as “wards of the state” are exactly that--they are the government’s responsibility (i.e. the public’s responsibility) to take care of and rehabilitate-- this is not happening.
We must demand better from our prisons, our criminal justice system, and importantly our society. The United States is home to a fourth of the world’s prisoners. This is a choice that we, as a nation, have made somewhere along the way, to lock up so much of our own behind bars. President Donald Trump has promised to increase this trend, reversing Obama’s discontinuation of federal contracts with private prisons (because they are less safe and less secure than government-run ones) to, as Jeff Sessions stated “meet the future needs of the federal correctional system". With Trump promising to lock up more Americans and immigrants than ever before, it is vital that we reform our prison system now. We know something is wrong in the cases of Piper Kerman, Adnan Syed, Steven Avery and Brandon Dassey; now it’s time to speak out on behalf of those without the power of the media zeitgeist and change the entire prison system permanently.
The United States is number one in the world, and it isn’t even close. Not number one in terms of public education or healthcare or the happiness of the populace, but in the sheer number of its citizens in prison and per capita incarceration rate*. Despite the fact that violent crime rates have declined substantially since the ‘80s the prison population has boomed, due in large part to mandatory minimum sentencing, a high rate of recidivism, and the spectacular failure that is the War on Drugs. Reforming our prison system is not a partisan issue, it is a human rights issue. It is an economic issue. It is a problem that we can fix.
Mandatory minimum sentencing, in addition to overwhelmingly affecting minorities (which we will get to in a minute), is undoubtedly a cause for such a sharp increase in prison numbers, as well as being cause for concern. Crimes which, in the past, came with relatively short prison sentences are now sentenced by statute. Forcing the hands of the court is nothing more than legislative overreach into the judicial realm, and it has real consequences. Severity, circumstance, and nuance in general go out the window when a judge is not permitted to do what it is that judges do - deliberately pass judgement. More people are jailed, and for a longer period of time, because of these laws.
Additionally, once someone enters the prison system, it is more than likely that that will not be the only time. A full two thirds of Americans released from prison are arrested again within three years. Over half serve another prison sentence. Our prisons are penal, not rehabilitory, and it is high time that we rethink the system. Programs that focus on rehabilitation see a significantly lower recidivism rate than systems that exist just to punish, and in places where former felons who have served their time are allowed to re-enter society without further repercussions (losing the ability to have gainful employment, vote, etc.) they are far less likely to commit further crimes.
This gives rise to a further issue- private prisons. If a prison functions for profit, then it must fill as many cells as possible for as long a period of time as possible. A system that truly focused on rehabilitation would have the exact opposite goal. Private prisons are directly at odds with what most of us would consider just.
But any conversation about the flaws in the United States Justice System would be incomplete without bringing up the War on Drugs. Our prisons are filled with non-violent, low- level offenders who may have done as little as been in possession of a joint. Our drug policy has failed. We have jailed a generation in the name of public safety, while ignoring the reality of the relationship between drug use and public safety. Drug laws have been so far misaligned with the truth that, from 1986 up until 2010, you needed to be in possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine in order to get the same sentence as someone in possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine (a law, which given the tendency for those arrested for possession of powder cocaine to be predominantly White while those who were arrested for crack were predominantly Black, was absolutely devastatingly racist). That law has since been amended so that instead of a 100:1 disparity, it is now 18:1. A totally arbitrary number that in no way accurately reflects the physical or social harm caused by either drug.
The long and short of it is this: we have well over two million adults behind bars who aren’t working or contributing to society in any meaningful way. Many of them are there because of flawed policy and they are not being properly prepared for reincorporation into society. In the name of eradicating crime, we have created a criminal class. A system that aims not to penalize, but to rehabilitate is the only system that can fix the societal and economic ills brought on by this era of mass incarceration. Democrats are responsible. Republicans are responsible. There is nothing, other than ignorance and blind adherence to political ideology, preventing us from solving this problem. This is about individual liberties, so why isn’t the GOP embracing reform?
Ownership: We'll Take it From Here
Kabir Moss & Ian Vanness
There is one place where America truly reigns supreme, and that is putting people behind bars. (Well, that and military spending.) In the pure-capitalist’s profound wisdom, they see a system and they think market. They believe when the market, rather than our constitutional values, is in the driver’s seat the industry will benefit fiscally, ultimately becoming profitable--an outcome beneficial to both parties. Most skeptics don’t disagree, but the troubling word here is “industry”, and the conversation around mass incarceration falls under the larger issue of government privatization.
Once our prison system was converted into an industry, companies’ created incentives to keep beds full and shareholders’ confidence in the market strong. Private prisons have state contracted “lockup quotas,” where a state guarantees, for example in California, 70% of the prison’s beds will be filled. Services required to run this protected market use private utility and health care providers. Having a captive consumer population has many perks, and higher prices that aren’t subjected to the basic law of supply and demand is just one. Here is where incentive-based markets fall apart, these are places where freedom of choice is compromised. One of those places might be healthcare, where patients can choose one of two options, pay and live or don’t pay and die--not much of a choice. Another place is justice, where a person is either guilty or innocent, has cause to stopped and frisked or doesn’t, is harmful are endangering to society or isn’t. Incentives to cast guilt has no relevance in this realm and in fact, our constitution requires the opposite.
Our generation is the most inclusive generation there has been in American history. It is a generation that has bought into the lofty idealism sold to us by the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. No matter how short the US has fallen in it’s promise of all men are created equal, our generation, for the most part, is one of the first to not explicitly add a “but” to the end of it. A generation that has never known January without MLK-Day, or summer without a pride festival. It is true, in many ways, that high school history classes treat the American story like a beautician putting lipstick on a pig, but in the end, mythologizing the American experience has led many of us to believe, not so much in what America was or is, but in what America can be.
We are sold, all men are created equal, and we bought, however naively, that equal opportunity is the baseline for a just society. We know that 1 in 3 black males will go to prison in their lives. And yet today, we allow ourselves to be sold an implicitly racist and bias system, spawned more than a century before, in a time of principle at deep conflict to the values and morals we hold now. It was a system explicitly designed to maintaining white supremacy.
If you find yourself rolling your eyes and casually dismissive of the aforementioned assertion, just consider the following. At the turn of the 19th century we saw anti-Chinese ‘Yellow Menace’ opium laws, followed by anti-Mexican ‘Killer Weed’ marijuana laws in the 1910-20s, and then moved onto the racially charged ‘War on Drugs’ in the 1970-present. So is it surprising that the promise of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness are continually being stripped from Black, Latino, and poor people every day, every month, every year?
However, as with all things political, we are not bound to maintain the system and practices of the generations before us, but instead are directly asked to participate in building a better system, better society--a more perfect union--for the future. The generation we follow allowed their fear of drugs and racial intolerance blind their constitutional courage for justice and freedom, but that does not have to be our path. In fact, considering our deep belief in the universality of the constitution and the knowledge we have, statistically and morally, about the inhumane, inequity, and all around failures of the current correctional policies, we have a constitutional and social obligation to reverse the incentives laid out by our parents.
When private citizens are perceived as dollar signs to be rented off to unaccountable (non-governmental) third-parties the only beneficiaries are industry stakeholders. A society that in part, no longer takes responsibility for the citizens that break the rules, isn’t the same society we pledged allegiance to every morning of elementary school. Here in lies the problem, outsourcing public responsibility means distancing ourselves, the people, from a task that is in of itself, OURS. The profit motive fuels the system, but disguising accountability in the divine free-market is how our voices are silenced, and our will halted.
We already face systemic incentives that lead us to endorsing strict stances on crime. From political payoffs like electing sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, and representatives of all stripes because as Obama said, “nobody ever lost an election because they were too tough on crime.” To structurally encouraging law enforcement to pad stats and quotas, or pushing poor people to accept risk-averse plea deals because they can’t afford adequate representation, even when they’re innocent. Every day we accept the terms of this industry we compromise our moral integrity as a society and our credibility as a nation. It is on us to demand change, and that means admitting that complacency is part of the problem. Only once we see ourselves as one society that takes responsibility of all aspects therewithin, the good and the bad, will our egalitarian values be reflected in reform.
Van Jones, an author and political commentary, poetically sums up how compromised we have become, “One out of four human beings with their hands on bars, shackled, in the world, are locked up here in the land of the free.” It is our duty to reform this system, not only to improve the lives of the people unjustly confronted with its oppressive regulation, but reforming this injustice will amend our contracted concordance with the constitution, the guiding agreement that binds our society.
No, laws are not meant to be broken, but breaking laws should not break our social integrity.
Take The Wheel
What does reform look like?
Honestly, there are so many avenues to traverse through when considering how to adjust our justice system. Reform can take place in many ways. Searching for a silver bullet solution shouldn’t be the goal, especially considering that laws guiding incarceration can vary greatly between different local and state governments. Here are a few important areas deserving of further discussion, and organizations committed to the debate.
Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: The Sentencing Project sentencingproject.org
The Sentencing Project focus on a variety of issues concerning criminal justice reform. Their vast publications seek to help educate the public and other organizations on prison reform policies. Their website offers informational resources in sentencing policy, racial disparity, juvenile justice, felony disenfranchisement, along with other topics. Visitors can use their platform to contact legislators regarding specific issues within criminal justice reform. They also offer a “States Contact” directory for ally organizations throughout the U.S.
American Legislative Exchange Council: Stand Up To ALEC standuptoalec.org
ALEC is a nonprofit organization that writes conservative legislation on behalf of private sector partners. The span of their legislation goes well beyond criminal justice policy. However, the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws that Bill Clinton signed into law in the 1990s were largely written by ALEC on behalf of for-profit prison stakeholders. Stand Up To ALEC offers concerned citizens an easy way to stay informed with current legislation that ALEC is pursuing, sign petitions, and write your state legislator with your concerns. Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix documentary 13th discusses ALEC’s culpable role in expanding mass incarceration.
Millennial Involvement: Student Alliance For Prison Reform studentprisonalliance.com
This organization provides various chapters of universities across America with program support, education tools, and access to organizations within the criminal justice network. Their Abolish the Box initiative is trying to persuade universities to abandon inquiring Having you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted guilty of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime? on college applications. Their 7X9 campaign aims to eliminate solitary confinement for youth.
Youth Solitary Confinement: ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) aclu.org/action
Help the ACLU send a petition to Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging him to stop the practice of holding arrested juveniles in solitary confinement. The petition will be sent once 25,000 signatures are given. They are currently a little shy of 21,000.