While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
― Eugene V. Debs
Way too often I hear somebody wishing that a particular person get thrown in jail, or get a longer sentence, or not be released from prison. I know it can be a figure of speech to say that a person “belongs behind bars” but it’s meant literally too. The target might be a person in the news, or a neighbor, or a politician, but it doesn’t matter. Treating the issue of imprisonment in the US either flippantly or with unthinking acceptance is dangerous.
Given that the USA incarcerates more people than any other nation, perhaps we could claim that we are uniquely qualified here to judge the institution? I don’t know about that, but let’s take a closer look.
It’s worth dwelling on the US ranking for a moment, because it’s actually two #1s: raw number of prisoners and percentage of population imprisoned; that is, both the highest total and the highest rate. On the planet. According to data collected by the World Prison Brief, the US has 2,121,600 people in jail, which is a rate of 655 per 100,000 people. That’s ten times the rate of Nepal, five times that of Bulgaria, and double that of Brazil.
The country with the second highest number of prisoners, China, at 1,649,804, has a far lower incarceration rate of 118 per 100,000, due to their much larger population. The US does not compare favorably with perennial “enemies” Russia (316) and Iran (284), nor with neighbors Canada (114) and Mexico (164). The closest runners-up are El Salvador (604) and Turkmenistan (552), which is nearly 20% lower. By the numbers, then, the position of the US is stark.
But even if we reformed our system so that our numbers were not so far out of whack with everybody else, that would not solve our prison problem.
We cannot mention incarceration in the USA without talking about race. Blacks are a little over 13% of the population but make up nearly four in ten (38.5%) of the people in federal and state prisons. Blacks are more than five times as likely as Whites to be jailed. In eleven states, Blacks make up over half the prison population [stats]. Hispanics are close to twice as likely as Whites to be imprisoned [stats].
The “justice” system is racist in its application at every level from federal to state to county to municipal, virtually everywhere. Systemic discrimination is meted out by legislators, judges, cops, and anyone else in a position of authority. This is not debatable.
But even if we reformed our system so that the share of each race in jail exactly matched their share of the population, that would not solve our prison problem.
Regardless of color, the system is unfair. We have cash bail, mandatory sentencing, and defendants denied their right to a jury by being forced to make plea bargains. These mechanisms lock people up just for being money poor, prevent judges from using judgment, and result in the innocent losing their freedom or even their lives. Add class to race as a factor in your chance of being incarcerated.
But even if we reformed our system to eliminate its bias in favor of monetary wealth, that would not solve our prison problem.
About 9 percent of all people incarcerated in the US are held in privately run facilities. Of federal prisoners, it’s 19%, and of immigrants detained by ICE, a whopping 75%. Privately-run prisons have proven problematic for a number of reasons, not the least being more incidents of violence. The bottom line is that they are beholden first to their shareholders, not the the public and there is no incentive to be concerned about justice. Adding extra time to a prisoner’s sentence for rule infractions, for example, prolongs the revenue stream produced by that prisoner. It should come as no surprise that the industry regularly lobbies for harsher sentencing. Profit as a motive for taking away people’s liberty is a true perversity. [For more, see: Mother Jones | The Week | the ACLU.]
But even if we reformed our system to forbid private ownership, that would not solve our prison problem.
Most US Americans believe that slavery is illegal in this country, but that is incorrect. The Thirteenth Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Except for criminals, in other words. Because of this clause, prisoners are a class of workers to whom labor laws like minimum wage do not apply. Hourly pay can be as low as 9¢―nine cents!―and the average nationwide high is $1.41. Totally unpaid labor can be required at the threat of solitary confinement or other punishments [stats].
But even if we reformed our system to abolish slavery and extend standard worker protections to prisoners, that would not solve our prison problem.
The only way to solve our prison problem is to abolish our prisons.
The idea might sound crazy at first, but it’s not. Prisons as we know them were not instituted until the 1800s, and the high rate of incarceration dates to the 1980s. That is to say, in the scope of history, our current institution is a recent invention, not some old sacred tradition. It was an experiment to begin with and it now has demonstrated its own failure. Time to move on.
“But what will replace prisons?”
There’s not a one-word answer to that. But I turn to activist Angela Davis, who wrote a book on the topic, “Are Prisons Obsolete?”, and she advises:
It is true that if we focus myopically on the existing system… it is very hard to imagine a structurally similar system capable of handling such a vast population of lawbreakers. If, however, we shift our attention from the prison, perceived as an isolated institution, to the set of relationships that comprise the prison industrial complex, it may be easier to think about alternatives. In other words, a more complicated framework may yield more options that if we simply attempt to discover a single substitute for the prison system. The first step, then, would be to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system [p. 106].
She then goes on to say:
[P]ositing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to re-envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment―demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance. The creation of new institutions that lay claim to the space now occupied by the prison can eventually start to crowd out the prison so that it would inhabit increasingly smaller areas of our social and psychic landscape [pp. 107-108].
She is not proposing an overnight transition. Regardless, the approach is genuinely radical in that it seeks to root out the current system, not merely trim it back. Disease runs deep in the bones of this thing; dressing it up differently won’t help. It just has to go.
That task might appear daunting from some perspectives. But once a ball gets rolling, there’s no telling how fast it might move. Social movements (destructive as well as creative) can and do reach tipping points that spark dramatic transformations. That’s why we must dedicate ourselves to the good ones even if the odds seem hopeless. Because we never really know. Especially in these increasingly unpredictable times.
Returning to the Debs quotation―”while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”―this was not merely the rhetoric of solidarity; he was also stating a fact. The degree to which we limit the freedom of others is the degree to which we constrain ourselves, too, in “our social and psychic landscape.” This is how the collective nature of human society functions: institutional actions against individuals affect entire communities. Or as another socialist, David C. Coates, put it: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
We can choose to act with cruelty or with compassion, and those choices make us into the people we are―individually and collectively. How did we get those concentration camps on the border? By choosing cruelty over compassion time and time again―individually and collectively.
Wishing jail on people is an expression of cruelty. The sooner we break that habit―and see the chains that bind us all―the better.