America’s prison catastrophe: Can we undo it?

The US prison system continues to fail, so why does it still exist?

Prisons in America, specifically, are some of the biggest, most dysfunctional businesses.

For an advanced society, the conditions in our prisons are quite appalling.

And the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it.

People who have made mistakes should be deserving of a second chance.

The impact that incarceration has on reducing the crime rate is quite marginal.

There are many better, cost-effective ways to reduce crime, and we haven't done them.

This prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis.

MARIE GOTTSCHALK: The United States is the world's leading warden. It has more people incarcerated in prison and jail, as in absolute numbers, and as a proportion of the population, than any other country in the world. So it incarcerates about 700 per 100,000 people in prison or jail. This is about five to 12 times the rate of other Western countries and Japan. We've got about 160,000 people who are serving life sentences in the United States now, and a number of them who are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, in some cases, equals the entire prison populations of other large countries.

In my state alone of Pennsylvania, we're spending as much just to send somebody, keep someone in a state prison, as to send them to college, at some of the leading colleges or universities in the state for the year. There's a political issue about the legitimacy of the political system that locks up so many people, and disproportionately locks up so many people of color, and so many people who are poor. So often when we talk about prisons and jails, we talk about the numbers, how many people are in prison, or how many people in jail. What we overlook is that we have some of the most degrading, dehumanizing prisons and jails in any developed country.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: For an advanced society, the conditions in our prisons are quite appalling. Going to an American prison increases your chance of getting HIV AIDS. Going to an American prison increases your chance of getting tuberculosis. Going to an American prison increases your chance of being raped, whether you're a man or a woman, and increases your chances of being raped either by prison staff or by other prisoners, and so on. I mean, it's just appalling what goes on in our prisons. I think it's completely uncontroversial that these things are appalling, you are not sentenced to AIDS, you are not sentenced to rape, you are sentenced to incarceration.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: The hardest parts of being in prison, the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it. You know, there were times when I was beaten so bad that I started to piss blood. You know, they're not gonna spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing, so it's not like you're gonna see a real doctor or a real dentist. You know there's, at one point I've been hit in the face so many times by prison guards that it had caused a lot of nerve damage in my teeth. So I was in horrendous pain. Your choices are live in pain, or let him pull your teeth out. I didn't want them to pull my teeth out. So I had to find techniques that would allow me to cope with the physical pain.

SHAKA SENGHOR: When I think about my journey through, in prison, I went through some very adverse experiences. I had some significant obstacles to overcome, including, you know, longterm solitary confinement, which they estimate is designed to drive a person crazy after 90 days. And what I found in that environment is that people figure out ways to cope and to, survive when they're forced to do so.

LIZA JESSIE PETERSON: The 13th amendment in the constitution, in the United States Constitution, it says that slavery is illegal. So we can't have slavery anymore, except for punishment of a crime. So everybody get your constitution out, look up the 13th amendment, and you see the clause that says except for punishment of a crime. So if you are committed- if you are convicted of a crime, then you're exempt from that 13th amendment saying that slavery, you know, is abolished. So that means that you're allowed to work as a slave. Slave labor, slave wages.

So you have people working for 10 cent an hour, 11 cent an hour, who are, you know, doing agriculture, working for huge corporations. You know, I don't want to name them because there's so many, but you know, a lot of the goods and services that we take for granted. Clothing lines, computer parts, airplane parts, military equipment, food that we buy, organically grown. These things are being manufactured in prisons, in prison farms, in prison factories, by inmates.

SENGHOR: Prisons in America specifically, are some of the biggest, most dysfunctional businesses we have in our society. When I was in prison, I worked for 17 cents an hour. That was my starting rate working in the kitchen. But there's also big corporations who invest in prison labor, because they can get this labor for $1.50 an hour, and then the sad part about it is that, in turn, they don't even hire these men and women when they're actually released from prison.

GOTTSCHALK: We have many people, not only do they serve their time, but once they leave, it's still as if they have an F, felon, as sort of the scarlet letter for the rest of their lives, because they've served their time, but they're not allowed to vote, they're not allowed to get welfare benefits, they can't get food stamps, they may not be able to get student loans, they may not be allowed to live in certain places, and they may not be able- permitted to get licenses for certain jobs, even jobs like hairstylist, which many people learn in prison. They learn how to be barbers and then they come out, they can't get licensed because they have a- a criminal conviction, and face extreme discrimination.

SENGHOR: I walked out of prison with a lot of optimism, despite being told by the officers that I will probably be back in six months. And when I walked out, I thought that I was returning to a society that would be a lot more forgiving, and a lot more open to me getting a second chance if I was willing to follow the rules of society. So, get out, look for a job, you know, prove that I want to work, volunteer in my community, you know, figure out ways to add value. And sadly and unfortunately, society is not really forgiving, and not really as open to second chances as I thought they will be. And it's really sad in the sense that 90% of people who are incarcerated will at some point return home. And we have a choice in how we welcome men and women back to our community.

I personally believe that there's not a human being that isn't without flaws, that hasn't had a bad moment. And nobody will want to be held hostage to that moment for the rest of their life. Once a person has served their time, that means that they should come out with a clean slate and an opportunity to start over. And if we want them to have a successful transition, it means we have to be willing to give them a true second chance, and not keep bringing up the past, unless they're, you know, repeating that behavior. But in most cases, most people want to just get out, move on with their life, find employment, find a safe place to live, and be free to enjoy the fullness of life.

JOHNNY C TAYLOR JR: :I'm a taxpayer, and anything that we can do to reduce recidivism, keep people off the rolls as an expense, a government expense and a prison, and as taxpayers, is a positive. So there's that part of me. You know, we have 7.3 million open jobs, and only 6 million people currently looking for jobs, which means we have a talent shortage. And if we could do anything to eliminate that talent shortage, that's 1.3 million people roughly. Every year, some 700,000 or so people are released from jails and prisons in America. So just taking a— we can use some of that population, that 700,000 person population to make a dent in that 1.3 million person deficit. So it's just practically smart.

And then the third part of me, which is more humanitarian-based, is people who have made mistakes should be deserving of a second chance. It is just, I mean, because all of us have made mistakes, some have been caught, some haven't, but these people have presumably paid their debt to society. And you know, if the idea is I make a mistake at 25 years old, I go to jail for five years, or prison for five years, and then I get out. What do I have to look forward to, if forever, I'm going to wear the scarlet letter, you know, convict to see, that says I'll never get another opportunity? Life is over there.

The Holy Grail of this would be if we could identify people who are six months, a year away from release, and begin giving them transitional skills. You know, work skills, life skills. Think about this. I was just meeting with someone who's been incarcerated for 25 years, the cellphone as we know it didn't exist then. So when they come out, they're gonna have to get adjusted to all of that the world has literally transformed in 25 years. So in an ideal state, we'll begin helping them transition back into a world that sort of they pushed the pause button two and a half decades ago. And we've got to catch them up pretty quickly so that they acclimate, and don't recidivate. That's number one. But once we do get them out, the most important thing we can do is get them back to work—housing and work. And they're sort of inextricably intertwined, you know, but housing is critical. And we've got to find places for people to have a permanent place. Mind you, they've had housing for some significant period of time, and on the outside, absent that there's an instability that makes them more vulnerable, and then you've got to pay for that housing, which is where the job comes in.

We employers have to reach out to this population, and let all of our biases go away. And we really do have to overcome our own biases. You know, we talk about implicit bias, unconscious bias, people think, "Oh, that's just in the context of race and gender." Well, the fact of the matter is we have a lot of biases, one of which is a bias that we have against the formerly incarcerated. And maybe it's because of television, and everything that we see in movies, and the characterizations of people who are in jail, but all of that comes through whether we're conscious of it or not, when we are talking to someone who we know has been incarcerated. We have some interesting research that says roughly 80% of HR managers say, "I'm interested and would be willing to hire the formerly incarcerated." Cherm's research says there's no bias at that level. Where we get into the bias and have had it, and seen it historically, was customers and other employees. Those are the biggies. You know, there's this NIMBY concept which says, "Yeah, I like the idea of hiring a formerly incarcerated, but not to sit next to my daughter at work." So, "Not in my backyard." That's the NIMBY concept. And so, we've had to work on that. Fortunately, we have some new research that says employees themselves, as a result of this narrative changing, and we're re positioning the formerly incarcerated, have said, "I'm okay." Three quarters of employees have said, "I'm okay with you bringing people into the workplace for nonviolent crimes."

Similarly, about three quarters of customers have said, "For nonviolent crimes, I'm willing to buy from a company that openly hires the formerly incarcerated, a product or a service." They're willing to do that. Those were two major hurdles in the past. And what we're seeing is, as a result of us changing the narrative, these are not bad people, they're people who made mistakes, and that every one of us has made them, and is e- entitled to a second chance, we're changing the narrative around hiring formerly incarcerated.

GOTTSCHALK: The public, and my students, this often happens, right? The logical thing is we lock up more people, we should reduce the crime rate, because there are fewer people who are out on the street to commit crimes. What we have found, myself as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Incarceration, we studied the best data. And in fact, the impact that incarceration has on reducing the crime rate is quite marginal. And the more people you incarcerate, the even less of an impact it has on reducing the crime rate, and it actually may increase the crime rate because people who serve time in jail, the conditions in jail and prison may actually make people more criminogenic. And also, you destabilize many communities by taking so many young people at the prime of their lives out of those communities.

So one of the first things the public has to realize is locking more people up doesn't necessarily increase the safety of their communities, and it actually may decrease the safety of the communities, and that a better solution is to not lock people up in the first place. Now, does that mean that it's a perfect world where no one will go out and ever commit a heinous crime? No, that- there's always that possibility, but we can never promise everybody a perfect world. If we wanted a perfect world, we would lock everybody up. And we're not going to do that, but this is not a risk that is a huge risk that we shouldn't be taking for many of the people, and if you talk to many wardens or superintendents of prisons, you talk to them informally off the record, they say they can go through their prison, and probably identify 30 or 40% of the people who really don't need to be there.

: What needs to happen is we need to have, as a central goal, not just trying to make conditions of confinement more humane or help people who are released from prison—there's like 750,000 people a year who get out of prison, they're tossed out on the street with stigma, without money, angrier and more alienated than they were before. They didn't get much treatment behind bars. So there's a lot of emphasis on reentry right now, as well there should be. But in my view, there really has to be an emphasis on reduction of this out of control, bloated government bureaucracy that is causing, and it's unlike other types of government waste.

I mean, if we have a contract to build a highway and it gets double billed, or air marshals, take air marshals, for example, which it seems like now that the evidence is in has been a totally useless government program. They haven't committed any crime. There's been an average of four arrests a year. But it's relatively benign. People get jobs, no one really is harmed by it, and maybe there's a little bit of public safety. So it's more or less- it's wasteful. It's irresponsible use of taxpayer money, but it's not harming anyone. Prison is very different. It actually is- most people think that it is responsible maybe for 10 to 20% of reducing crime in the United States. There are many better, cost-effective ways to reduce crime, and we haven't done them, and we need to start kind of changing direction. There are signs that's happening, and there needs to be changes at every level of the system. We need better indigent defense, we need fairer trials, we need a shift in our approach to addiction, toward thinking about it as a medical problem entwined with, crime and poverty problem rather than as a solely criminal justice issue. We need to think about better ways to let more people out of prison, especially as they pass beyond their criminal prime.

GOTTSCHALK: People age out of crime. So that the most criminogenic years, as I tell my students, is often the late teens and the early 20s. So locking somebody up for 30-40 years for a crime that someone's done in their 20s doesn't socially, morally, financially make a whole lot of sense. What we also know is that someone who's committed a serious crime has been released, eight- usually eight years after they've been released, their profile, the likelihood that they will commit another crime is the same as someone who's never committed a crime before.

PETERSON: I think that we're at the precipice of another great shift in society, where you have a small group of people who say this prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis. Something needs to be done. You have a large swath of people who say, "Oh, they're just criminals. This is, we have to have prisons, right?" But I have faith in that small voice of people who believe in humanity becoming louder, and louder, and louder.

  • The United States is the world's largest prison warden. As of June 2020, America had the highest prisoner rate, with 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. But according to experts, doing something the most doesn't mean doing it the best.
  • The system is a failure both economically and in terms of the way inmates are treated, with many equating it to legal slavery. American prisons en masse are expensive, brutal, and ineffective, so why aren't we trying better alternatives? And what exactly are these overstuffed facilities accomplishing?
  • Damien Echols and Shaka Senghor share first-hand accounts of life both in and after prison, while political science professor Marie Gottschalk, activist Liza Jessie Peterson, historian Robert Perkinson, and others speak to the ways that America's treatment of its citizens could and should improve. "The prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis," says Peterson. "Something needs to be done."

Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash
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