The prison system in the US often gets a bad rep for being one of the most brutal and abusive in the world, and with good reason. The way America incarcerates criminals is considered ineffective and overly punitive, and these problems have raised eyebrows among the public.
So, it’s no surprise that mainstream conversations about prison reform are running rampant, and politicians have entered the fray as well. Services like Inmate101 are also doing their part to spread the word about the problem. This sort of awareness is good for making US prisons for humane over time.
The truth is, US prisons are in immediate need of an overhaul – to a greater extent than you think. If you need more reasons to change your glowing opinion about the country’s prison system, a few disturbing details are presented below:
- Swelling Numbers
Taken together, the number of people in local, state, and federal prisons and jails in America is nearly 2.4 million. Shockingly, that’s large enough to form the fourth largest city in the US.
If you increase the data to include all citizens under correctional control, including parole and probation, you end up with a metropolis of roughly 7 million, rivaling the size of New York. Add to that the number of people who have seen the inside of a jail cell in any given year, and you’re left with a prison city with an 11.6 million population, which is the combined strength of Los Angeles and New York.
This makes the American prison system the biggest in the world. In fact, the country’s prisoner population is one-fourth of the globe in spite of hosting just five percent of the whole population.
This situation did not materialize overnight, however. The prison population has been growing steadily since the Reagan administration in the 1980s until it expanded to five times the initial numbers by 2010. That’s a giant leap of 400 percent. Various factors are responsible for this spike, although it comes down primarily to rising crime rates, strict sentences, increased convictions, and a full-scale crackdown on drugs.
- (Un)Justified Sentences
Believe it or not, but more than 3,000 convicts are serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes without any chance of parole. You may be put away just for stealing gas, shoplifting, and selling weed. What’s more concerning is, nearly 65 percent of the incarcerated people are black and struggling with mental health problems. Life without parole is one of the harshest sentences, next to the death penalty, and it was rarely issued before the 1970’s. But in the span between 1992 and 2012, its use has quadrupled across the country.
- Racial Inequality
Black men are sent to prison five times more than in South Africa under the apartheid regime. Also take into account the fact that more black adults stay in captivity, in parole or probation or prison, than under slavery during 1850.
- Lack of Education
Over 40 out of the 50 US States spend more money on prisoners compared to K-12 students. Placing someone in jail is five times costlier than putting someone through public school in California, Utah, and Washington. In several other states, the cost of imprisonment is at least double or triple the price of education.
- Non-Impact of Lower Crime Rates
While the crime rate in America rose rapidly from the 1970s to the early 1990s, it began to decline steadily afterward. On the contrary, imprisonment of citizens rose steadily during that span, but even when crime rates fell, the number of people being put in prison continued without any signs of slowing down.
- No Escape from the Vicious Circle
According to a 2014 report published by the Bureau of Justice, 68 percent of state prisoners get rearrested less than three years after they are released. If that’s not all, 77 percent face re-arrest within the next five years. More details on the latter group found that over a third were sent back to prison within the initial six months.
- Space Constraints
In 17 US States, the prison facilities hold more captives than the maximum capacity. Overcrowding leads to various issues, posing a threat to the wellbeing of the inmates and prompting irresponsible behavior on the part of the administration. The State of California, which is one of the worst offenders when it comes to mass incarceration, was even found to have shipped some prisoners to private prisons in other locations to relieve some of the stress from overcrowding. At one point, the situation became so dire that one prisoner was losing his/her life almost every week due to medical neglect.
Unless some drastic reforms are passed, the problem of mass incarceration is not going away anytime soon. And even if that sounds depressing, there are some reasons to be optimistic about the chances of reform. America’s attorney general has branded the existing system as “ineffective and unsustainable”, and the media has brought the subject of reform into the collective consciousness of the masses with increasing frequency.