This week on The More You Know, I’m going to be explaining the U.S. prison system: From the history of mass incarceration to far away reformation.
THE HISTORY OF MASS INCARCERATION
The U.S. is the leader of the prison population rate, and, incarcerates the most people than anywhere else in the world.
Since the 1950’s, the prison system growth has raised from 200,000, to 1,800,000. But the real rise in prison population didn’t start until the mid 1970’s, when Nixon began the stigma of the “war on drugs,” using this as a thinly-veiled excuse for primitive policies against small drug offenses. During Ronald Reagan’s administration, the prison population rose from 329,000, to 672,000.
Incarceration levels boomed during the ’90s, both federal and state, but state incarceration doubled. The 1994 Crime Bill gave the states money to enforce policies that filled prisons and raised population levels. For the last four decades, the quickly rising incarceration levels have remained an enigma to our country, but recently, mass incarceration levels have declined slowly.
Prison population and racial disparities have declined in the past decade by ten percent. A product of the government realizing that mass incarceration is an ineffective, expensive way to fight crime, states have began rolling back controversial policies. Even with these small victories, getting rid of the decades-long prison population policies and racial disparities will take centuries to reverse.
According to the Bureau of Justice, African-Americans are 6.9 times more likely to become incarcerated than white people, while Hispanics are 3.1 times more likely.
In a study done in 2016, they found that black Americans made up 27% of all individuals arrested – double the amount of their share in the total population. This data is directly linked to the function of concentrated urban poverty, more common in black communities than in other racial groups. This means that black men and women have an increased likelihood of committing certain crimes because of where they live. While there is a higher black involvement in certain crimes, most white Americans overlook the fact that people of color are disproportionately more often the victims of crime, and devalue bias in the criminal justice system. In a smaller definition, what you don’t see, you don’t understand.
While police brutality and bias is a common controversy today, the racial undertones in the criminal justice system has caused it. Because societal segregation and disproportionate levels of poverty are not addressed, harsh policies have caused the targeting of black Americans by police. The war on drugs in the 1980’s also caused racial disparity in America. While white Americans are five times more likely to do drugs, black Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession.
Notable fact: “In recent years, black drivers have been somewhat more likely to be stopped than whites but have been far more likely to be searched and arrested.”(https://openpolicing.stanford.edu/findings/)
FLAWS INSIDE THE PRISONS
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at 756 per 100,000 residents. This means that inside the jail walls may be insufficient, problems ranging from overcrowding, insufficient living conditions, and a criminal justice system that keeps inmates in the system for the rest of their lives.
The U.S. prison system is a poorly run institution, with too many inmates in one area, and too few well-trained officers to keep these inmates in check.
In prisons like Vaughn, located in Delaware, where a riot broke out in 2017, the insufficient systems have caused staffing to fall short where it’s needed. Most officers don’t last long in prisons, due to being forced to work overtime, they’re burnt out, and poor wages. Because of the influx of officers leaving, this leads to high rates of stress, fatigue and disarray in prisons among the leftover officers. With less and less officers, prisoners aren’t going to get what they need to survive. The overcrowded prisons become tense between inmates and officers. In the worst case scenario, riots break out, as seen at Vaughn.
In other scenarios, we see rampant abuse and violence from officers who abuse their power over inmates. Medical care is few and far between. Inmates with disabilities, mental illnesses, or addictions never see any help or get treatment. Despite growing support for intervention, private and state prisons are denying any kind of reformation.
More than half of all inmates in prison have a mental illness, and don’t receive the help they need within their jail cells. Over 60,000 inmates are in solitary confinement, and isolation accounts for over 50% of all prison suicides.
In the case of Brown v. Plata in 2011, the Supreme Court said that failing to provide prisons with adequate medical and mental health will result in serious consequences for state prisons that are “grossly inadequate.” Even with this, state prisons have remained uncontrolled and unliveable ever since.
A notable fact: Private prisons are profiting off of keeping 2 million people in the prison system. “Mass incarceration is “an expensive way to achieve less public safety.” It cost taxpayers almost $87 billion in 2015 for roughly the same level of public safety achieved in 1978 for $5.5 billion. Factoring in policing and court costs, and expenses paid by families to support incarcerated loved ones, mass incarceration costs state and federal governments and American families $182 billion each year.” (link as listed before)
As you may have found out by now, a fix to the prison system is desperately needed in the United States. There is a remedy: prison reform. Prison reform is focused on public safety, the rehabilitation of inmates during and after their sentence, and revising correctional policies that put up barriers between the offender and the community.
After an inmate leaves prison, they are faced with over 48,000 legal barriers put up by the government. These barriers that impact an inmates employment, housing, and other fundamental things needed to be a member of a society, negatively impact public safety by raising the numbers of re-offending inmates and keeps those with a criminal record from reaching their full potential.
Besides getting rid of the many barriers set, there is a way to make sure inmates get the help they need to correctly re-enter society when their sentence ends, and it’s called prison programming. Prison programming provides inmates with “the crucial skills, education, and character development he or she will need to be successful when leaving the walls of a prison.” This includes education and workforce development, employment programs, life skills and family management classes, mental health and substance abuse support, and much more.
These programs are proven to work. Statistics show that with mental health support, misconduct incidents were reduced by 22 percent. Substance abuse treatment reduced incarceration by 48 percent.
With prison reform, we can ensure that inmates can have the skills they need to re-enter society and have a higher likelihood of them becoming productive members of society.