Prisoners of the system

Of all the social justice issues we hear about in the media, few seem to be getting less coverage than the American prison system.

Many justice groups like Amnesty International are quick to point out the abuses at our prisons abroad, such as Guantanamo Bay, yet the abuses within the prisons in our own nation rarely top the priority list. Whereas the abuse in Guantanamo is physical, verbal and psychological, the abuse in domestic prisons is subtly ingrained into our legal system and cannot be solved simply by shutting the prisons down.

Some of us might have heard that that the U.S. prison population is the biggest in the world at 2.2 million people, housing a quarter of the world’s prisoners despite representing only one-twentieth of the global population. This gives us by far the highest per capita incarceration rate, as well: one in every 32 Americans is either in prison, on probation or on parole. Since 1980, our prisoner population has gone from 500,000 to over 2.5 million. Could this have to do with the rise of private prisons and the so-called prison industrial complex?

Making a business out of prisons, like making a business out of war, will turn arresting, or killing, into an end, not a means to an end. People are not put in prison just to be corrected, but are herded like cows through a factory of cells. This system produces profit for the prison owners, guards and investors, all on the taxpayer’s bill. For too long we have forgotten the point of prisons: they are correctional facilities, not human warehouses.

Few people are aware that prisons are becoming choice locations to recruit cheap laborers who will not organize into unions or strike, and can be paid as little as 17 cents per hour.

In 2008, it was reported by the Left Business Observer that federal prisons produce 100 percent of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bulletproof vests, uniforms, tents bags and canteens, as well as 93 percent of paints and paintbrushes, 92 percent of stoves, 36 percent of home appliances, 30 percent of speakers, 21 percent of office and airplane parts, medicinal supplies and more.

A for-profit prison system like this lends itself to exploitation of citizens. It is set up to treat them as economic inputs, not as innocent-until proven-guilty, law-abiding citizens.

It’s not that we don’t need prisons in our society, but that prisons rarely serve their role of reforming individuals to re-enter society.

More federal prisoners are convicted for non-violent drug offenses than for all other crimes combined. Numerous studies have shown drug abuse can be dealt with more effectively outside of prison, yet we continue to lock up drug users at an incredible cost. According to, $1 billion is spent each year on prisoners convicted for marijuana offenses alone. Yet upon release, many prisoners find themselves a ‘danger to society’ again because of their same untreated, addictive, violent or abusive behaviors, ready to go through the prison cycle once again.

The odds are particularly stacked against minorities. African-Americans, who represent only 13 percent of drug users, represent 37 percent of drug arrests, 59 percent of convictions and 74 percent of drug sentences. Black males are 13 times more likely to go to jail for a drug offense than white males. Similarly, Latino-Americans are arrested for drug offenses at three times their proportion in the general population.

This is clear evidence of the racial foundations of our drug laws and the widespread racial profiling that continues to this day and has led to a plethora of minorities being held in prison, often innocent and awaiting a fair trial. The prison system affects more than just incarcerated persons; their families and communities are affected as well.

As Americans, we need to re-think the foundations of our criminal justice system and begin weeding out the roots of institutional racism.

By Jeremy Aaron
Published: Friday, March 5, 2010

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