When creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morriset first launched the pilot episode of Sesame Street in 1969, they did so with the admirable goal of educating children through television. Now, after over four decades of imbuing young minds with the power of concepts like phonics and mathematics, the Muppet-based child television series is making headlines for its decision to engage a new subject: incarceration. Recently, the longtime PBS program introduced a new character, Alex, whose father is in prison. He is part of a new online interactive series aimed at reaching children dealing with issues such as bullying, sibling rivalry, and parental incarceration. So once again, Big Bird and company are teaching our society an important lesson, and this time it is that our incarceration problem has accumulated to the point where we can no longer ignore it.
Attesting to the growing urgency of criminal justice reform is the recently surfaced story of Herman Wallace. The 71-year-old New Orleans native made headlines last week after dying from liver cancer three days after his re-entry back into society, after being held in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a.k.a. “Angola Prison,” for 42 years. Wallace, after having already landed behind bars for armed robbery, was prosecuted for the murder of a security guard, convicted, and placed in solitary confinement for almost half a century. While the facts and verdict of Wallace’s case are murky and beyond the scope of this article, what is most salient to us now is what Wallace’s story represents, which is the growing narrative of people in the United States, particularly people of color, serving as fixtures within the criminal justice system.
Just how much has this incarceration narrative grown? The current picture of prison occupancy is not just concerning but alarming. In 2011, 2.25 million people filled spaces within American prisons. Out of every 100,000 Americans, 716 were imprisoned, as compared to only 250 during 1970 when Sesame Street was still undergoing its pilot season and Herman Wallace was a free man. Now, our prisons sit at 99% occupancy, filled mostly by individuals convicted of nonviolent crimes. In fact, the state of California, which has the largest prison population in the country, made headlines back in 2011 after the Supreme Court ordered the Golden State to reduce its prison population on the grounds that the prisons violated the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. So, our prisons clearly have gotten out of hand.
The racial gap for prisoners rests at the heart of the prison expansion problem. According to the most recent study from the Pew Research Center, black men were five times more likely to be imprisoned in 1960, but they were more than six times more likely to be filling jail cells in 2010. Out of every 100,000 white U.S. residents, 262 white men were imprisoned in 1960 and over o1,000 sat under duress in 2010. For black men, almost 1,200 out of every 100,000 found themselves in prisons in 1960 while over 4,000 were confined in 2010. While the fact that these numbers increased so tremendously for either racial group highlights a major issue, the accelerated rate at which black men are imprisoned should trouble us all.
Why is imprisonment such a big deal? Especially when it comes to nonviolent offenders, the issue is the message that incarceration leaves about our society. It says that certain people are expendable, that they can be placed on the periphery of our communities, and that we are all better off if these certain people are confined to spaces away from us. And even if it is important to “maintain order,” is taking people’s freedoms and stripping away people’s opportunities to live life — our most precious gift — the best way to do so?
If nothing else, we must realize that it is time to put pressure on our elected officials to further reduce the size of our prisons. We must do this because prisons are not on the margins but in the center of our lives because. The idea of criminality affects how we see one another and the ways in which we value or devalue life. Herman Wallace may have been confined to rural Louisiana, but the implications of his story and experience stretch everywhere from Main Street to Sesame Street.