A recent study revealed that the United States is the global leader in its rate of incarceration. The study, conducted by the Pew Center, concluded that the rates are at an all-time high – 1 percent of the adult population is in jail.
“Over 2.3 million people were being held this year, it said – far ahead of other countries with large prison populations like China, Russia and Iran,” the BBC reported, which comes at a cost of $49 billion.
These facts reveal that the United States could easily be related to other police states, but anyone who makes the comparison will most likely be considered “un-American” or “pro-terrorist.”
The total prison population is also at an all-time high. It has risen from about 1.65 million in 1996 to 2.3 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice – a staggering increase of 650,000. Although our rate of incarceration is so high, the study found that “the higher rates of incarceration did not reflect a similar increase in crime, or in population, but tougher sentencing measures.”
Democracynow.org reports that “one in 100 black women are jailed compared to one in 350 white women. One in 36 Hispanic men and one in 15 black men are in jail or prison.”
The rise in incarceration also came after a decrease in violent crime. America is a prison, and it’s time to change how deviance is handled in this country. The prison system is growing but it isn’t deterring crime, and I believe it actually contributes to it.
I think mandatory minimum sentences and the bogus “war on drugs” are two major factors in the prison population increase. Mandatory minimum sentences should end, as they do not allow the judge or jury to put the crime into context and often require a sentence that may far outweigh the crime.
This policy is flooding U.S. prisons and taking freedom away from individuals who may not have committed a truly dangerous crime. It is also limiting the potential of this society.
The war against drugs is a sham. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that former DEA Agent Celerino Castillo claims that the CIA ordered him to cease investigation into drug trafficking with the Contras after he discovered that the intelligence agency was involved in the trafficking as well.
“The connections piled up quickly,” said Castillo. “Contra planes flew north to the U.S., loaded with cocaine, then returned laden with cash – all under the protective umbrella of the United States government. My informants were perfectly placed: One worked with the Contra pilots at their base, while another moved easily among the Salvadoran military officials who protected the re-supply operation. They fed me the names of Contra pilots. Again and again, those names showed up in the DEA database as documented drug traffickers. When I pursued the case, my superiors quietly and firmly advised me to move on to other investigations.”
Another problem with the prison system is that it isn’t reformatory, it’s punishment, and punishment does not change people. Punishment angers, frustrates and demoralizes.
According to the Washington Post, a study conducted by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found that “60 percent of the nation’s inmates commit another crime” after release. They attribute the prison system’s faults to a lack of understanding of life behind bars, limited access to mental health facilities and health care treatment and poor literacy programs, among other factors.
However, the study found that the No. 1 indicator of a successful return to society after a prison sentence is a tie to family. The commission suggested prisons lower “the cost of telephone calls, expand visiting rooms to accommodate families and offer counseling to inmates’ relatives” so that inmates do not have such a feeling of alienation from the people who wait for their return. They also said that even minor improvements in health care and literacy programs “could significantly reduce recidivism,” and that the segregation of inmates furthers the problem of violence in prison as well as after release.
The Washington Post reports that the panel told Congress in 2006, “We should be astonished by the size of the prisoner population, troubled by the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos and saddened by the waste of human potential.”
The prison system is a result of the larger U.S. social culture of punishment. Those who conform to the “white, middle class” system of norms are not rewarded, but those who do not conform are punished. This reflects a mentality of superiority and authoritarianism that is dangerous to freedom and equality. Those who are “different” are marginalized in almost every faction of our society from the slums to the ruling elite. The time has come for a reform of the prison system here in the United States, and the changes made will help improve other social systems as well.
Jose Ferrer is a sophomore majoring in mass communication.