The Abysmal American Prison System

I've been wanting to write about this subject for a long while now, but it's a heavy, hard one and so has been repeatedly relegated to my "I'll get to that soon" list. On Tuesday, however, I read a thoroughly wrenching New York Times article about teenage inmates suffering egregious abuse at the hands of their captors at Rikers Island (a place I believe may be one example of hell here on Earth). A number of these boys -ages 16 -18; those are not yet men!- begged for solitary confinement to avoid being beaten. If that's not a winless choice, I don't know what is. Sickened by what the US Attorney in Manhattan called a "deep-seated culture of violence" against young prisoners enabled by "a powerful code of silence" by Rikers guards and a worthless "investigatory" system to look into the attacks on inmates, I dusted off my pile of saved articles and got busy.

About this piece

The complexity of this topic necessitates both organization (in format of this post) and disclaimer: I am not an authority on this subject by any means and although I have amassed a good bit of information, surely there are inputs, results and other important elements that I have omitted or not made space for here. 

Likewise, although I believe firmly that our prison system is  hideously effed up, I also believe that the facts lead most people to that same conclusion. As such, this post is riddled with statistics from reputable, trusty sources like The Economist, Pew Charitable Trusts, ACLU and others committed to factual information rather than fear-mongering malarkey.

Lest you think I'm a lunatic softy, I absolutely believe that many people deserve to be imprisoned, some for much longer than they currently are sentenced. Those convicted with certainty of rape, murder (except in cases of real defense of self), child molestation, kidnapping and other such heinous acts should most definitely go to jail if not more (no space for discussion of death penalty here).

And lastly, this conversation is impossible to have in any substantive way without noting the enormous racial disparities in the U.S. justice system. Please read the rest of this piece keeping these statistics (copied from the NAACP's Criminal Justice Fact Sheet)  forefront in your mind:

  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today's prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
  • 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
  • Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).

Let's start with an overview of some of the critically important, negative shifts in the American prison system over the past 30'ish years.

Rapidly Rising Rate of Incarceration

Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled to more than 2.4 million (sourced from many experts, including an 8/13/13 Wonkblog post via The Washington Post). Using the current U.S. population count, 313 million, and some basic math, that's roughly 1 of every 130 Americans behind bars in federal and state prisons. Over that same time span, the murder rate in America has plummeted, as you can see in this graph created by Talking Points Memo, AND the number of federal laws has increased from 3,000 to 4,450 (Economist blog, 3/13/14).

U.S. Murder Rate since 1960 (Talking Points Memo)

In this context, it is especially important to note that "The most serious charge against 51% of [federal prison] inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent are in for homicide" (Wonkblog, 8/3/13). That's pretty staggering.

In describing the new federal laws, The Economist (3/13/14) points out that a large percentage of them:

"have poor intent requirements, meaning people are being locked up not to keep the rest of society safe, but for technical violations of laws they may not have known existed. This overreliance on imprisonment can be seen most starkly, and sadly, by looking at the juvenile population, which is just under 71,000 nationally. Around 11,600 [of those] are imprisoned for 'technical violations' of their probation or parole terms, rather than because they committed a new crime." ... "Around 3,000 are locked up for things that aren't crimes for adults, such as running away, truancy and incorrigibility. Incarcerated children are less likely to graduate high school and more likely to spend time in prison as adults."

Likewise, a 2013 Pew Report on time in prison and recidivism showed that although deterrence (avoiding future crime) and incapacitation (if you hold people for longer, you'll avoid their committing a crime for longer) are common justifications for lengthier prison terms, longer sentences do not, in fact, reduce crime by non-violent offenders.

What this all boils down to is that lots of people are in jail for longer periods of time and often multiple times for non-violent transgressions. That same Pew Report noted that prison terms have, on average, extended by about nine months per inmate. That extra time costs the U.S. an extra $10 billion.

So, we're paying to keep an enormous number of non-violent offenders in jail for longer which screws up their lives (see the above note about incarcerated children being less likely to graduate from high school), costs us money that's better spent elsewhere AND does not make our society safer. This strikes me as a seriously failed equation.

A final nugget: America "imprisons more people -both per capita and in absolute terms- than any other nation in the world, including Russia, China, and Iran" (ACLU report, 11/2/2011, and other sources). What terrible company to beat.

Increasing Privatization of Prisons

In tandem with, perhaps because of, the sky-rocketing incarceration rate, the U.S. is also seeing a boom in the building and use of for-profit prisons. Yep, jails have become money-makers. In a November, 2011, report, the ACLU stated:

"Private prisons for adults were virtually non-existent until the early 1980s, but the number of prisoners in private prisons increased by approximately 1600% between 1990 and 2009. Today, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners, and, according to one report, nearly half of all immigrants detained by the federal government. In 2010, the two largest private prison companies alone received nearly $3 billion dollars in revenue, and their top executives, according to one source, each received annual compensation packages worth well over $3 million."

Some argue that private prisons save states money and so are necessary but a for-profit institution is, eponymously, looking for profit. And the states pay the companies that run them. Profit = bodies in jail, so in concert with the increase in laws that can send folks to prison, well, make those arrests!

As Adam Gopnik wrote in the January 30, 2012, New Yorker:

"The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It's hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible."

These companies, such as Corrections Corps of America, have openly stated in investor pitches their belief that:

"private prisons comprise a unique, recession-resistant investment opportunity, with more than 90 percent of the market up for grabs, little competition, high recidivism among prisoners, and the potential for 'accelerated growth in inmate populations following the recession.'"  (John Whitehead, writing for Huff Post, 4/10/12)

It's hard not to think they're rooting for more, lengthier and repeat imprisonments, especially when estimates have put the profit opportunity at $70 billion (Business Insider).

Conditions and Experiences in American Jails

Beyond the abuse perpetrated by guards, American jails are also overcrowded, understaffed and, thus, more unsafe for and within the prisoner population. An October 15, 2012, article in The Washington Post noted a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in stating that, “BOP officials reported increased use of double and triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, limited meaningful work opportunities ..." all of which "contribute to increased inmate misconduct" and make prisons less secure.

This isn't surprising. What did surprise and horrify me was the July 27, 2014, piece in the New York Times about the frequent breaking of the law, held in 21 states, that forbids as inhumane the shackling of pregnant women in active labor and/or just after giving birth.

One woman featured, Valerie Nabors -a Nevadan who was imprisoned during her pregnancy, later sued the state because the prison officers bound both her hands AND ankles when she went into labor. Despite the ambulance driver's and the hospital nurse's protests, Ms. Nabors was shackled until a second nurse in the delivery room demanded she be released. Ms. Nabors gave birth via emergency C-section, was chained up again 10 minutes afterwards and was later found to have suffered pulled muscles in her groin as well as a separation of her pubic bones, both of which were found to be direct results of the restraints.

Any woman who has ever been in labor or witnessed any other woman in labor knows that NO WOMAN attempting to manage the extraordinary pain of contractions is a flight risk. If you don't want or have access to medicinal assistance like epidurals, moving about helps you manage the pain and helps your body naturally progress through labor. Restraining a pregnant woman trying to give birth is cruel and completely inhumane. It's how pregnant sows on factory farms are treated but worse, because we're talking about human beings. By the way, Ms. Nabors was in jail for attempting to steal $250 worth of casino chips.

I started this post with the horror I felt over the treatment of teenagers at Rikers Island, and to revisit them, let's just imagine how changed our own lives would be if we were jailed at the age of 16 for a small-scale robbery, beaten so severely that we sustained a skull fracture, placed in solitary confinement for unfathomable amounts of time and then, finally, released? Can you imagine the toll on individual psyches this could easily take, especially if the sentence was unjust in any way in the first place?

As I've noted, a number of people are re-jailed, sometimes repeatedly, both because of infractions of technicalities in the laws and because new crimes are committed. For those first imprisoned for truly minor offenses, time(s) in jail is often enormously damaging. If the individual is a parent, especially a single parent, who takes his/her child(ren)? What becomes of his/her job if there was on? What happens if he/she was in school? What about the pregnant women chained while in labor?

As we do with regards to gun regulation, climate change, public education and so many other issues, we really, really need to address this one. It's enormously damaging to our national sense of self, our reputation in the world, economically and, most important, to the millions of men and women who really never deserved being sent through the prison pipeline in the first place.


NAACP, Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, post-2008 Wonkblog, 11 Facts About America's Prison Population, August 3, 2013 The Pew Charitable Trusts, Prison Time Served and Recidivism report, October 8, 2013 The Economist blog, America's Prison Population: Who, What, Where and Why, March 13, 2014 Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, The Caging of America, January 30, 2012 John W. Whitehead on the Huffington Post, Jailing Americans for Profit: The Rise of the Prison Industrial Complex, April 10, 2012 ACLU, Banking on Bondage report, November 2, 2011 The Washington Post, Prison Crowding Undermines Safety, Report Says, October 15, 2012 The New York Times, In Labor, In Chains, July 27, 2014