Mass incarceration has proven to be an ineffective way of dealing with crime. We need to address crime punishment as a whole; especially when our prison population is mostly composed of the poor, underrepresented communities, and people of color. The fact that priority is given to imprisonment, as opposed to rehabilitation, education or other essential social programs, needs to be address with urgency.
More than two million people in the United States are in prisons, jails, youth facilities and immigrant detention centers. The largest imprisonment rates are found among states in the Deep South, in the poorest areas where life expectancy, health standards, and educational opportunities are the lowest, and where criminalization of people of color has a long history.
Imprisonment rates in the Deep South can be linked to the connection between our current prison system and our past with slavery. In her book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis links the two and examines the subject in depth. She argues that, “the post-Civil War evolution of the punishment system was in very literal ways the continuation of the slave system, which was no longer legal in the ‘free’ world.” Free slaves were criminalized by Black codes, and once in prison, they were victims of the convict lease system. Later, traces of Jim Crow segregation only furthered the racial oppression of people of color, driving them to petty crimes for basic survival needs.
In our time, links to this connection are easy to find, such as in the case of Kalief Brower, a teen who was imprisoned for more than three years in Rikers Island without ever being convicted. Brower allegedly stole a backpack, his case was dismissed, and he was released after his accuser left the country, leaving the prosecutors without a witness and, therefore, without a case.
Stories like that of Brower are not unique. The influx of inmates detained for minor crimes, budget issues, and backlog in criminal courts, make cases like Brower’s take years to resolve instead of days or weeks. The fact that an innocent teenager spent more than three years of his youth neglected of education, and achieving other life goals is very alarming.
While crime rates have risen and fallen independently of incarceration rates, and incarceration rates rose even after crime fell, the length of stay in prison has grown for all types of crime creating greater costs for imprisonment. Now, how much does imprisonment actually cost? We spend almost $70 billion annually to put adults in prisons and jails, youth in detention centers and to supervise 7.3 million individuals on probation and parole. While the cost of imprisonment increases, funding for essential programs as education, only decreases.
Prison reform is in no way an easy topic to discuss, but if the fact that sixteen states have more people in prison cells than in college dorms fails to spark a conversation about the problem with mass incarceration, what will? The United States needs to start addressing this issue. If the system that has been in place for so long is failing, changes need to be made. We need to offer our children a better path in life through education as opposed to prison.