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Our Flawed Prison System and the Case for Abolition

On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. Once arrested and convicted of a crime, a person becomes a slave to the state. From slavery to the Jim Crow era to mass incarceration, the machine of the oppressor continues on.

A 2011 study done by the International Centre for Prison Studies found that approximately 10.1 million people are incarcerated worldwide. In 2009, the United States had an incarcerated population of 2.29 million. The population of Earth is about seven billion people, while the United States only holds around 300 million. The United States is around five percent of the world’s population but holds a quarter of the world’s total incarcerated population.

That’s a lot. It puts the United States at the top of the list as the country with the highest incarcerated population, as well as the country with the most prisoners per 100,000 people. Inside prison, inmates work for little to no pay, suffer through inhumane practices, and don’t receive proper healthcare. After prison, former inmates are turned away from job opportunities and are poverty-stricken. Our criminal justice system emphasizes the crime in order to gain support for the punishment.

The National Research Council has reported on the abominable conditions inside prisons. For men, the degrading and violent culture of prisons creates an environment that harms inmates and makes it more difficult to succeed in a society outside of prison. Deprived of personal property, dignity, and privacy, inmates are mentally and physically abused without repercussions. In addition to the many problems already faced by male inmates, female inmates face threats of sexual assault and underresourced treatments. Prison guards aren’t trained in empathy and can be overly aggressive. Extreme problems like overcrowding and long-term isolation can cause hallucinations, depression, psychological regression, and even cognitive dysfunction.

Along with the poor living conditions, many inmates are part of the penal labor system. Thought to be rehabilitative, prison labor is common. It is seen as a way to pay back the costs of incarceration as well as the cost of the crimes committed by the inmates. However, prison laborers aren’t protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act or the Labor Relations Act, two laws that protect laborers from being exploited and overworked. Prisoners are often paid between nothing to cents an hour, much lower than the minimum wage. Inmates are, under the 13th Amendment, able to be forced into involuntary servitude.

Our prison system based on punishment and torture has never been proven to work, as the United States has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world. The inhumanity of our current prison system is also exacerbated by the inequality within the system, seen by the acute racial disparities.

Many of the racial differences within the American prison system stem from the dramatic rise of incarceration that started in the 1970s. Started by President Nixon, the War on Drugs was purportedly meant to eradicate illicit drug use in the United States, but it instead increased racism in prison and furthered a disconnect between citizens and the police. Nixon established and increased federal drug control agencies and pushed for policies like mandatory minimum sentencing and no-knock warrants. These policies disproportionately attacked Black and Hispanic communities, racially profiling innocent people.

Policies set by Nixon were the foundation of the drug hysteria of the Reagan era. From 1980 to 1997, the number of people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 to 400,000. With the introduction of crack cocaine into mainstream media, the War on Drugs exploded. While cocaine was mostly found in rich suburban white areas, crack was associated with urban areas and was used mostly by people of color who couldn’t afford cocaine. According to 13th, a documentary by Ava DuVernay, Congress passed mandatory sentences for crack that were much harsher than the sentences for powder cocaine. One ounce of crack could get you the same prison time as one hundred ounces of cocaine. In doing so, Congress knowingly targeted Black and Hispanic communities while being lenient on white communities.

Racism in prison was exacerbated by the war on drugs. Most crack dealers and people in possession of crack were Black and Hispanic people living in the inner-city, just like most cocaine dealers and people in possession of powder cocaine were white and lived in more suburban areas. This racism wasn’t subconscious or unintentional — Nixon was trying to target Black and Hispanic communities. A top Nixon aide named John Ehrichman admitted that they “knew [they] couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, [they] could disrupt those communities.” With the public convinced that every Black or Hispanic person was a drug dealer, the prejudices they faced were written off as justified because they could be dangerous. Because of that, police officers could easily detain members of these communities using stop-and-frisk laws and traffic stops. These policies greatly increased the power of police officers, empowering them to act on their racial biases.

So, the United States prison system is psychologically degrading, manipulative, racist as well as sexist, and doesn’t work. What’s the solution? Get rid of it.

Prison abolition is not a utopian solution; it’s one scholars have spent decades advocating for. The idea of prison is based on reform, that time spent in an institution changes “bad” people into “good” people. But that idea is established on belief that all “bad” people can receive the same help and benefit from it, when in reality, everyone’s needs are individualized. The existence of different crimes points to the existence of different ways to eradicate them. Prison abolition is not simply tearing down prison buildings; it’s also decriminalizing homelessness and addiction, diverting funds away from prisons to education and psychiatric institutions, and looking at the actual source of incarceration rather than suppressing the issue.

The prison industrial complex has been and still is a large problem in America. The United States still has the highest incarcerated population in the world, as well as one of the highest recidivism rates in the world. This issue isn’t something that can be easily fixed with a couple of laws and policies, because it is deeply embedded in our society. The United States of America has never been the land of the free, not when millions of our own people are stripped of their human rights behind bars. Our prison system can’t simply be reformed, it demands abolition.


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