From a young age, we are taught to fear prisoners. We are told to despise them and even hate them. We are also told they are unworthy of our care and concern. However, I have spent the majority of this year analyzing the American prison system and have found that prisoners in the United States are worthy of compassion. I have come to learn that the prison system is not an institution for retribution, but one of mass incarceration. 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in America, a population that has seen a 500% increase in the past 30 years. The aspect of the criminal justice system that is under speculation is that the majority of the prisoners are the lower class and people of color. What is interesting is people of color make up 58% of the prison population, however they only make up approximately 25% of the US population. While incarcerated, prisons are treated worse than animals; and when they are released, they are stripped of their rights to vote, serve on juries, and lack the freedom from discrimination for things such as employment, education, and public benefits. To me, this sounds awfully like the Jim Crow era when African Americans were segregated from whites and treated as second class citizens. This system of mass incarceration seems like the same Jim Crow discrimination, but disguised as a different beast. Old forms of discrimination that we thought were left behind in the Jim Crow era are legal again once you have been branded a felon. Mass incarceration has become a new form of racial social control.
Two thirds of the prison population are arrested for minor, non violent, often drug related offenses. They are branded as criminals and felons and become second class citizens, a title in which they will never escape. The 15th amendment allowed African Americans to vote, however now we have created a system that has denied many that right. More than half of working African American men have a criminal record. It is essentially legalized discrimination.
Another area of mass incarceration under my speculation is the incarceration rate in relation to crime rate. Although the number of prisoners have quadrupled in the past 30 years, the crime rate has dropped significantly. According to a report in 2010 done by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), while the rate of violent crime has been on the decline since 1992, the incarceration rate has been increasing at a steady pace since 1975. The incarceration rates need to be stopped in its tracks. Mass incarceration is not necessarily driven by increased crime, but increased discrimination and lack of public consciousness.
An alarming fact that I learned is white youth are more likely to use drugs than black youth; however, that is not what the prison population reflects. About 14 million whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug, but 5 times as many whites are using drugs than African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense. African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months)(Sentencing Project). These statistics scream injustice.
What saddens me is many people push this issue to the side, and say that it is a shame and there is nothing that can be done; but I believe this is the issue that my generation will look back on in 30 years and wish they had taken a stand now. We are living in a country where our criminal justice system discriminates African Americans by throwing them in jail. It takes fathers and mothers away from children; it takes innocent youth and ruins the rest of their lives. Even when they do get out, they are subject to housing discrimination, employment discrimination, and discrimination from public benefits like food stamps. Doesn’t this sound familiar to the Jim Crow society the Civil Rights Movement fought so hard to abolish? How are these people suppose to get a job, a house, or even food after being released? Well, 70% resort to committing another crime after their initial release just so they can go back to prison.
All these facts and data are calling for a social movement to end mass incarceration. We need to pick up where the Civil Rights Movement left off, with the purpose to eradicate racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system. How many lives need to be destroyed until people start to do something? It is necessary to realize the reality of race in the United States and start the movement of not only ending mass incarceration, but also discrimination in the criminal justice system.