A few days ago, I read an excellent post by David Chura entitled The World of Girls and Young Women in Prison. This piece deservedly earned an EP. If you haven’t read it, it is well worth your time. In fact, I was so inspired by it that I decided I would finally write the piece that has been lurking in my sub-conscious for longer than I care to remember.
I’ve been loathe to write about this, partly due to the hits-too-close-to-home nature of the subject and, probably more to the point, because just thinking about it enrages me, so I bat away thoughts of it every time they wing to the front of my mind. I read David’s piece again yesterday to bolster my resolve. I even printed out reams of paper containing the facts I want to use to cogently present my case, in hopes of remaining somewhat detached so that this post doesn’t come off sounding like a major rant. It’s too important a subject to be reduced to a rant; instead, it should be given the thoughtful consideration and careful review worthy of a matter of such grave import.
The matter that weighs so heavily on my mind is the condition of, the deterioration of, the adulteration of the judicial system in the United States of America.
“The judicial system in the United States of America.” Sounds grandiose and lofty, doesn’t it, when it’s phrased just that way? I’m sure that’s exactly what our founding fathers had in mind – something grandiose and lofty… and just – when they crafted the constitution with the Preamble stating the intention to “establish justice… provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” Justice was certainly on their minds when The Bill of Rights was adopted by the states on December 15, 1791.
Certainly, two-hundred and twenty years later, our society has undergone massive shifts and permutations that have stretched thin the fabric of goals and ideals set in motion centuries ago. One would be naïve to believe otherwise; however, the basic principles of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness set forth in the Declaration of Independence should hold firm and true as the underpinning of the enlightened and just society that our forefathers declared and destined us to be.
Fast-forward 200+ years to a burgeoning private prison industry, mandatory sentencing guidelines, Zero Tolerance policies and a whole slew of related judicial ills; and this once grand country boasts the largest prison population in the world. Approximately 1.8 million people are locked up in the US at any given time—that’s equal to the combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Miami. Despite a 20% drop in the rate of violent crime since 1991, the number of people imprisoned has risen by 50%.
Until the 1970’s, US prison population consisted of approximately 110 inmates for every 100,000 people. By the 1990’s that number had jumped to 445 inmates per 100,000; among adult men it averages 1 out of every 100 adult males in the population. This unprecedented increase can be attributed in large part to the War on Drugs, implemented in the 1970’s by Richard Nixon and galvanized in the 80’s by an overzealous Congress which enacted federal mandatory minimum sentences in a misguided attempt to shore up the emotionally-charged battle cry for a “war on drugs.” Consequently, the proportion of drug offenders sentenced to prison ballooned from 79 percent in 1998 to a whopping 93% in 2004. Many are serving inordinately long sentences and receive little or no addiction treatment. Lest you think otherwise, allow me to point out that a large majority of that 93% are not drug kingpins, as one would hope, but are instead nonviolent drug users with addiction problems who would be far better served by fines, community service, and drug treatment programs.
Of the 1.8 million prisoners serving time in the US today:
- 70% are illiterate
- Approximately 200,000 suffer from a serious mental illness
- 60%-80% have a history of substance abuse. Meanwhile, the number of drug-treatment slots in America’s prisons has declined by more than half since 1993
The Rise of the Prison Industrial Complex
Despite the fact that more than 1000 new prisons have been constructed in the US over the past twenty years, prison overcrowding remains at critical levels. Prison population continues to grow by 50,000 to 80,000 people per year. To address this serious problem, authorities have turned to private companies, such as Wackenhut Corporation and Corrections Corporation of America—two of the largest private-prison companies in the US. Cell facilities rent for $20-$60 per day with an additional $2.50-$5.50 commission per man/per day. Overcrowded facilities often truck prisoners hundreds of miles throughout the country to private prisons with open beds.
Phone companies are raking in the bucks, too. One single pay phone in prison can generate as much as $15,000 a year. Some phone companies install phones for free. Loved ones of incarcerated individuals sign up with private collect-call enterprises charging as much as $25 for a five-minute call.
Revenue for private companies riding the wave of the Prison Industrial Complex has reached more than $35 billion a year, with a projected growth of 5-10% annually.
Our system is broken and repairing it seems to be an insurmountable task. One has to ask, is anyone even paying attention any more? Allow me to leave you with one single ray of hope—an editorial published in the Baltimore Sun on December 8, 2011, written by Andre M. Davis of Baltimore, a judge with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. May his words ring loud and clear, and may they herald the beginning of a new day in the halls of justice.
photo courtesy of 69ergibby