The Abysmal American Prison System

I’ve been wanting to write about this subject for a long while now, but it’s a heavy, hard one and so has been repeatedly relegated to my “I’ll get to that soon” list. On Tuesday, however, I read a thoroughly wrenching New York Times article about teenage inmates suffering egregious abuse at the hands of their captors at Rikers Island (a place I believe may be one example of hell here on Earth). A number of these boys -ages 16 -18; those are not yet men!- begged for solitary confinement to avoid being beaten. If that’s not a winless choice, I don’t know what is.

Sickened by what the US Attorney in Manhattan called a “deep-seated culture of violence” against young prisoners enabled by “a powerful code of silence” by Rikers guards and a worthless “investigatory” system to look into the attacks on inmates, I dusted off my pile of saved articles and got busy.

About this piece

The complexity of this topic necessitates both organization (in format of this post) and disclaimer: I am not an authority on this subject by any means and although I have amassed a good bit of information, surely there are inputs, results and other important elements that I have omitted or not made space for here. 

Likewise, although I believe firmly that our prison system is  hideously effed up, I also believe that the facts lead most people to that same conclusion. As such, this post is riddled with statistics from reputable, trusty sources like The Economist, Pew Charitable Trusts, ACLU and others committed to factual information rather than fear-mongering malarkey.

Lest you think I’m a lunatic softy, I absolutely believe that many people deserve to be imprisoned, some for much longer than they currently are sentenced. Those convicted with certainty of rape, murder (except in cases of real defense of self), child molestation, kidnapping and other such heinous acts should most definitely go to jail if not more (no space for discussion of death penalty here).

And lastly, this conversation is impossible to have in any substantive way without noting the enormous racial disparities in the U.S. justice system. Please read the rest of this piece keeping these statistics (copied from the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Fact Sheet)  forefront in your mind:

  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
  • 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
  • Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).

Let’s start with an overview of some of the critically important, negative shifts in the American prison system over the past 30′ish years.

Rapidly Rising Rate of Incarceration

Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled to more than 2.4 million (sourced from many experts, including an 8/13/13 Wonkblog post via The Washington Post). Using the current U.S. population count, 313 million, and some basic math, that’s roughly 1 of every 130 Americans behind bars in both federal and state prisons. Over that same time span, the murder rate in America has plummeted, as you can see in this graph created by Talking Points Memo, AND the number of federal laws has increased from 3,000 to 4,450 (Economist blog, 3/13/14).

U.S. Murder Rate since 1960 (Talking Points Memo)

U.S. Murder Rate since 1960 (Talking Points Memo)

In this context, it is especially important to note that “The most serious charge against 51% of [federal prison] inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent are in for homicide” (Wonkblog, 8/3/13). That’s pretty staggering.

In describing the new federal laws, The Economist (3/13/14) points out that a large percentage of them:

“have poor intent requirements, meaning people are being locked up not to keep the rest of society safe, but for technical violations of laws they may not have known existed. This overreliance on imprisonment can be seen most starkly, and sadly, by looking at the juvenile population, which is just under 71,000 nationally. Around 11,600 [of those] are imprisoned for ‘technical violations’ of their probation or parole terms, rather than because they committed a new crime.” … “Around 3,000 are locked up for things that aren’t crimes for adults, such as running away, truancy and incorrigibility. Incarcerated children are less likely to graduate high school and more likely to spend time in prison as adults.”

Likewise, a 2013 Pew Report on time in prison and recidivism showed that although deterrence (avoiding future crime) and incapacitation (if you hold people for longer, you’ll avoid their committing a crime for longer) are common justifications for lengthier prison terms, longer sentences do not, in fact, reduce crime by non-violent offenders.

What this all boils down to is that lots of people are in jail for longer periods of time and often multiple times for non-violent transgressions. That same Pew Report noted that prison terms have, on average, extended by about nine months per inmate. That extra time costs the U.S. an extra $10 billion.

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