October 27, 2008

Am I Not Human? America's Prison System

We proudly participate in the monthly 'Am I Not Human?' blogging campaign on the 27th of each month. Our hope is to shine a light on human rights abuses. I'm shining my light this morning on the junkie-like appetite of America to putting our citizens behind bars.

There are more than 2.2 million persons in US prisons and jails, an increase of 500 percent from 30 years ago. A June 2007 report by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that the incarcerated population continued to grow in 2006, experiencing its largest one-year increase in six years. The United States now has both the largest incarcerated population and the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, with a rate five times that of England and Wales, seven times that of Canada, and more than 10 times that of Japan.

The sheer numbers alone should be cause for concern. These 2.2 million felons weren't born criminals. What is it about our criminal justice system that results in such large numbers?

Many of us think that racism is one reason for these horrendous numbers.

The burden of incarceration falls disproportionately on members of racial and ethnic minorities. Black men are incarcerated at 6.5 times the rate of white men, and 11.7 percent of all Black males age 25 to 29 are in prison or jail. The US government failed to explain or address these rates in its 2007 report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

As the prison population grows, so does the challenge of providing adequate medical and mental health care. A September 2006 BJS report found that more than half of all prisoners—and nearly three-quarters of all female prisoners—suffer from a mental health problem such as major depression or a psychotic disorder.

In California a federal judge found that medical care in the state’s prisons violated the US Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2006 the judge appointed a receiver to oversee prison medical care, stripping that function from the state government. In September 2007 the receiver issued a report finding that 15 percent of California prisoner deaths were either preventable or possibly preventable. New ideas for reducing prison population floated in California earlier this year.

Enacted by the US Congress in 1996, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) creates a variety of obstacles for prisoners seeking to challenge their conditions of confinement or otherwise vindicate their rights in court. In January 2007 the US Supreme Court issued a decision overturning some particularly restrictive interpretations of the PLRA by lower federal courts.

Often we think of places like Darfur, Haiti or Tibet whenever we discuss 'human rights abuses'. However, these abuses can take place in America ... and the men and women in our US Prison System are human beings ... not animals.

Any thoughts on ways to improve the system of incarceration in America? Are mandatory sentences helping or hurting? Wouldn't it make sense to decriminalize drug use? Put a druggie in prison if they rob or steal ... put them in a hospital if they are addicted. Couldn't we cut our prison population in half if we stopped putting people in jail for being high on drugs?

What say u?


blackgirl on mars said...

Wouldn't it be great if all the money that was put into the criminal justice system was put into health care and education? The fact that there is even a debate that Obama is "socialist" says how far off we are as American People in realizing what are our natural born rights should be and that our priorities as a nation are amiss.

Hagar's Daughter said...

Prisons are big business. As a capitalist country it's all about making the most money. My view of making improvements to the country's prison system is jaded. I don't see reform happening unless there is no money to be gained from the penal system.

SjP said...

Addiction or any kind is considered an illness except when it comes to the addiction to street drugs. While other addicts receive treatment, drug addicts - unless the drugs are obtained from the doctor - are put in jail. What's wrong with that picture? Could it be that because so many of the faces are black?

I invite you and other Villagers to read my post entitled: Am I Not Human? The Faces of Poverty

The Urban Scientist said...

so many people in prison signals a failure of our society to engage people in legal ways of living and interacting.

Increased prison population means decreased tax payer population, fewer contributors to communities/societies and more people on the recieving in.

Just thinking economically, no system that requires high inputs and offers little to no outputs is sustainable or good.

perhaps we should reconsider the "correction" part of correctional facilities. Rehabilitate.

Unknown said...

Blackgirl - I wonder if there are any advocacy groups that have specific alternatives for our consideration as citizens?

Hagar's Daughter - I understand your jaded frustration. However, I wonder if we can't have some alternative reforms suggested for our consideration? For example, I see no reason to put people in jail for *using* drugs ... although i agree with prison for those that *sell* drugs.

Sojourner - I agree with your thoughts about drugs being a major cause for the over-crowding of prisons. I wonder if this is something that can be dealt with at local or state level? Or does it require national legislation?

Urban Scientist - We need to either decrease inputs (prisoners) or increase outputs (successful rehabilitation; worthy members of society upon their release from prison)...

msladyDeborah said...

Hotep Villager!

I am always amazed at the number of people who are actually housed in the American prison system. And when I consider that many of them are actually drug abusers it no longer makes sense.

What really bothers me is the fact that there is actually no honest system to help reform these individuals. So when they are released from prison on these types of charges our society refuses to give them credit for having sered time for their mistakes.

It would be nice if part of the money that is put into housing prisoners was used to as preventive funding for programs that honestly helped people.

Unknown said...

Lady D - There has to be a better way to handle our entire prison system. Someone noted earlier that it has become big business ... and it cannot be outsourced. I imagine that there are entire communities who depend on the prison as employers and economic stimulus. I wonder if that is part of the reason we don't look at it more...

Omyma said...

Even if it's "good business", the fact that America has become an incarceration nation is unconscionable. I live in a community where the prison is a big employer and a "part of the community." What kind of community is that where the prison is thought of as a "contributor"?? And the criminal justice system no longer serves to protect the innocent. It serves to provide the prison industry with "business." It's much easier, if accused of a crime, to cut a deal than go through with a trial, which even paid attorneys always try to avoid due to the expense and time involved. We should invest in businesses that don't destroy lives and solve the issue of crime by getting to the real causes and making changes in the community and create opportunities, instead of acting always out of fear.

Unknown said...

Omyma - I appreciate your village voice on this issue. You suggest some long-term suggestions to combat the problem. Finding other business opportunities. Dealing with the underlying problem/causes of the actions that lead to prison time.

Out of curiosity ... what idea or alternative solution would you like to see worked on first? Where can we get traction thru our online activism? Any thoughts?