The United States prison system is a blight for the country. The International Center for Prison Studies estimates that America imprisons 716 people per 100,000 citizens (of any age). That compares (unfavourably) with Russia (484), China (121) and Iran (284). Over two and a half million American children have a parent behind bars. A whopping 60% of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are non-violent offenders, many of them in prison for drug charges (overwhelming African-Americans). Even while our crime rate has fallen, our incarcerated population has climbed.
Politicians win elections by being tough on crime and portraying all prisoners as violent and subhuman. Convicted felons are not allowed to vote in America, disenfranchising them and preventing them from wielding any political influence. Nearly 6 million Americans, or 2.5% of the voting age population, cannot vote because they have a felony on record.
Harvey Silverglate, a civil libertarian, has noted that with the broad laws on the books, especially those relating to technology, most Americans commit three felonies a day. These are the laws that allow the DOJ to harass people like Aaron Swartz with trumped-up charges. Silverglate argues that an overzealous prosecutor could charge almost anyone with one of the many absurd, archaic or overbroad laws on the books. Silly laws, like the infamous "three strike laws," create the illusion of safety at a high cost: the American prison system is bad for society and dehumanizing for those who are incarcerated.
High rates of incarceration, and our inability to deal with recidivism (partially a result of high rates of incarceration) are bad for society. In 2008, the federal, state and local prison system cost a whopping $75 billion dollars. It's estimated that the total cost of the drug war over the last 40 years could be over $1 trillion. And that doesn't include opportunity costs: investments that could have been made with that money, humans that could be innovating and increasing GDP, etc. There are further, unquantifiable costs in the form of less social cohesion, the breakdown of neighborhoods, and fatherless children.
Those who are incarcerated are ostracized, but also face a cruel dehumanization. Consider the widespread rape of prisoners, which remains unacknowledged in wider society except for a joke now and then.
An estimated 217,000 American prisoners are raped each year. That's 600 new victims every day, and the results are horrifying and traumatizing. In 2010, the Department of Justice released a report about abuse in juvenile detention centers. The report found that 12.1% of all youth held in juvenile detention reported sexual violence; youth held for between seven and twelve months had a staggering victimization rate of 14.2%.
Dr. James Gilligan told ABC News that "the more violent, powerful inmates — are in effect being given a bribe or a reward to cooperate with the prison authorities . .. as long as they cooperate, the prison authorities will permit them to have their victims."
Worse, state, local and federal authorities who are aware of the problem do nothing to stop it. Back in 2009, the National Rape Elimination Commission released a set of proposed standards to reduce rape, including: make data on sexual assaults behind bars public; improve staff training, supervision and protection for vulnerable detainees; limit cross-gender searches and supervision, particularly when prisoners are undressed; and make it easier and safer for prisoners to report abuse. Here are how some correction departments responded.
The New Mexico Corrections Department submitted this in response to the proposed standards: "A simple cost-benefit analysis shows that when weighed against the twelve million dollar cost of compliance, non-compliance would be much cheaper."
"To be clear, the Department has every intention of complying with whatever standards are ultimately approved, but the fact remains that compliance with the currently proposed standards would be very expensive."
The Alabama Department of Corrections estimated that implementing these standards would cost the state $58 million dollars, but that the state could cut costs by keeping the definition of "prison rape" limited:
"We strongly recommend the use of the statutory definition of 'rape,' as directed by PREA. The term 'sexual abuse' is much too broad and encompassing of incidences such as verbal harassment which is not the intent of PREA."
There is some hope for detainees. The Department of Justice released its new standards May of last year, to praise from Human Rights Watch. Prisons have until August of this year to comply, and then the Justice Department will conduct a round of audits. The new standards are welcome, but they come far too late for the far too many abused prisoners.
The saddest thing about the entire saga is what Jesse Lerner-Kinglake from Just Detention International tells me: "This abuse is preventable. Indeed, the BJS studies showed that some facilities have all but eliminated this abuse." The problem is that no one cares enough to demand stricter standards.
The American prison system should be our greatest source of shame. The only country that imprisons more people per capita may be North Korea (estimates are obviously tough to find). That's not a good comparison. I've noted here some of the causes and singled out one perncious problem, but I could have noted others. Consider the fate of the detainees held in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in the weeks after Katrina:
"As floodwaters rose in the OPP buildings, power was lost, and entire buildings were plunged into darkness. Deputies left their posts wholesale, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests ...
Prisoners went days without food, water and ventilation, and deputies admit that they received no emergency training and were entirely unaware of any evacuation plan. Even some prison guards were left locked in at their posts to fend for themselves, unable to provide assistance to prisoners in need."
Or take East Mississippi Correctional Facility, run by the private corporation GEO Group, Inc. The ACLU has recently filed a federal suit on the behalf of the prisoners alleging that prisoners defecate into Styrofoam trays and plastic trash bags because they lack functioning toilets, the cells lack working lights, prisoners are often left naked, the cells are rat-infested, medical attention is limited, and that rape, stabbings, and beatings are often committed against mentally handicapped prisoners. Gawker has obtained the letter of one prisoner who was raped and robbed at the private prison.
It's time for reform. The voiceless and voteless prisoners and former prisoners in America need us to demand reform.