The Lumberjack student newspaper
Prison fence in black and white. | Photo courtesy Brad Kozlek

OPINION: Modern day slavery

Why we need to abolish prison and stop talking about reform

Why we need to abolish prisons and stop talking about reform

In America we have an inhumane amount of people rotting away between cold concrete walls and steel beam doors. I was one of them, walking through the rotating door between jailed and released over five years. The last time was a year’s conviction in a correctional facility. A short stint compared to the 2.2 million people who are currently housed in US prisons, a number that exceeds that of the strictest totalitarian countries. Ironically, we claim to have a system based on morals and principles that promote freedom and democracy.

The Sentencing Project, which is a non-profit organization that works for a fair and effective U.S criminal justice system, has found a 500 percent increase in incarceration in the last 40 years, yet our crime rates have not changed. Why then, have we gone from less than 300,000 people housed in prisons in the 70s to where we are now?

There are many sufficient answers; a modern-day slavery system that flies under the radar because treating criminals like slaves is legal. I could go on about how we got here, but that wouldn’t matter because we’re already here. What we should consider now is who’s in our prison system, what’re their barriers to reentry into society and what other avenues are there besides ruining the lives of those who enter the criminal justice system?

Of the US population, 37 percent are people of color. Of the population of US prisons, 67 percent are people of color. This comparison is a red flag. There is a ridiculous over-representation of people of color in the prison system. The NAACP has found that both African-Americans and Caucasians have the same rates of drug use, yet African-Americans are six times more likely to be imprisoned for drug charges. Overall, the incarceration rate for African-Americans is five times the rate of Caucasians.

Our prison system is a racist institution whose modus operandi is profit over people and discrimination. There are prisons that’ve banned Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” but allow Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” along with other white nationalist claptrap. Are you kidding me? There is no “prison reform” in America. Laws and policies have changed through the decades, and the crisis only grows in the numbers of lives lost to the system.

Ruby C. Tapia, who co-edited “Interrupted Lives: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States” said, “Reforming the prison entails changing its existing practices to make the system a better one. Abolishing the prison entails dismantling it wholesale. Reformers object to how the prison is administered. Abolitionists object to the prison’s very existence.”

The system itself doesn’t work in a way where reform is even achievable. We must abolish the very existence of the prison model. In the 60s and 70s Attorneys General and Republican congressmen were many of those arguing of the immorality of prisons, and we need to remind those in government of that.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that within three years of release, 67.6 percent of people get rearrested, within five years 76.6 percent are rearrested and of all those rearrested, half of them are rearrested within their first year. Of those rearrested, 77.6 percent are drug offenders. If our prisons were built to reform and restructure those who enter their hellish gates, then our recidivism rates would be far lower or, should I dare sound optimistic, non-existent.

The function of a prison is to take a “criminal” out of society, which is called incapacitation, for however long and then release them back better than when they came in, which is called rehabilitation. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 95 percent of those in prison will be released. If that is the case then the prison model is failing in rehabilitation if over 60 percent of those released return.

One of the reasons for this recidivism is that once released, there is a laundry list of barriers that prevent one from integrating back into society. With this comes the revoking of many of the rights and privileges of those who have served their time. This is clearly a system setting up individuals for failure. Voting, government assistance, financial aid for school, employment, housing. Every single one of these is in jeopardy or stripped from someone trying to fit back into society. One never leaves prison without carrying a sign that reads “I’ve been to prison” for the world to see. The US has set up everyone being released for defeat.

Instead of prison we need to find a rehabilitation system that creates pathways to success. We need to put money meant for education actually into education, on all levels. We need to start programs that direct more services to poor urban areas that suffer the most and all but guarantee a future prison sentence for the inhabitants.

We need to separate those suffering from mental illness, in any form, from the criminal justice system and place them back into mental health care services. We need to work on destroying the class line and creating a lessened gap between lower, middle and upper. By destroying the existing prison system that we have, we can build institutions built on compassion, empathy and equality. Systems in which people get cared for instead of forgotten.

We should all think of what the creator of Surrealism Andre Breton said of imprisoning people: “Unless you’ve been inside a sanitarium you do not know the madman are made their, just as criminals are made in our reformatories.”

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