The United States has the largest prison population in the world as well as the highest per-capita incarceration rate.
The incarceration system is the default form of punishment and rehabilitation for felony offenses such as drug use, murder, and fraud. It is also used to discourage others from further offenses. There are about 2.2 million inmates in state, federal and private prisons. The goal of the system is to rehabilitate individuals back into society as law-abiding citizens, however, mass incarceration prevents this outcome. The war on drugs, minimum mandatory sentencing laws, and economic forces from the industry correlate to the extreme expenses of mass incarceration as well as the loss of human potential. Ultimately, the United States incarceration is a cruel and shortsighted system that has failed not only the people but has violated human rights and destroyed the lives of many.
One of the key components of mass incarceration is the war on drugs. The war on drugs played a huge role in the current state of mass incarceration ever since it started back in the 1970’s, where harsher sentences for drug offenses became the norm. President Nixon began cracking down on drugs abuse and disproportionately targeted minorities and poorer communities. According to the Human Rights Watch, people of color have a higher rate of arrest compared to whites, who abuse drugs at the same rate. Almost half of the people in prison are serving time for drug offenses and the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 450,345 in 2016 (The Sentencing Project). The war on drugs is a war on people and a war on progress. Essentially, it’s one of the leading factors as to why U.S.
prisons are overcrowded. Minimum mandatory sentencing laws is another policy that contributes to mass incarceration and overpopulated prisons. It is also a result of the massive war on drugs movement back in the 70s.
During the tough-on-crime era, minimum mandatory sentencing laws require judges to punish certain crimes a minimum number of years in prison regardless of context. An example of a cruel long sentencing is Weldon Angelos case. When Weldon Angelos was 24 years old, he sold a small amount of marijuana to an informant while in possession of a weapon (Families Against Mandatory Minimums). He was sentenced 55 years for selling a drug that is legal for recreational use in other states. Mandatory minimum sentences did not just affect his life, but his five-year-old son and his seven-year-old son who had to grow up without a father.
These mandatory minimum sentences fill up the prison with unnecessary and ridiculously long sentencing. The threat of long mandatory minimum sentence is also used to convince detent defendants to take a plea bargain. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, 97.2% of offenders plead guilty and among those who pleaded guilty, 47.9% received a sentence below the range of their minimum sentence. The whole system is flawed and its intention is nowhere near the goal of rehabilitating felony offenders.Another aspect of mass incarceration that’s not vocalized as often as others is that some prison construction are a for-profit industry. The private contracting of prisoners for work and paying them little to nothing inevitably motivates the incentive to jail more people.
According to Global Research’s writer Vicky Pelaez, inmates receive as little as 17 cents per hour of maximum six hours ($20 a month). Corporate stockholders who make a lot of money off prisoners’ labor lobby politicians for longer sentences to ensure a steady flow of income and opportunity to expand their workforce (Vicky Pelaez). Private companies such as GEO Group donate and endorse politicians to submit a law that could lead to immigrant detention facilities which means cheaper labor (Mirren Gidda). This clearly demonstrates that most private owned prisons prioritize money. The drive for money plays a huge role in the incarceration of large segments of the population for a long period of time. Politicians don’t mind because some of these dirty money goes right back to their pockets thus, creating a never-ending cycle to those who fall through the cracks. It can be argued that private prisons intentionally avoid rehabilitating inmates so that once they get out, the forces against them will drive them back to prison and perpetuating the cycle.
Prison is the perfect opportunity for corporations to exploit workers because the public deem offenders are inhuman beings. Since the public often dehumanizes prisoners, it will be easy to create a system where there is a never-ending influx of workers to exploit without the eyes of the public. It’s not farfetched to claim that greed is another huge factor as to why mass incarceration exists.The incarceration system is overwhelmingly a public system that is hurting society financially and socially. The cost has been estimated to be in the billion with $2.
1 billion dedicated to food and $12.3 billion for healthcare (Prison Policy Initiative). Without a doubt, mass incarceration is a huge financial burden and it is not properly taken care of. Furthermore, the loss of human potential is even more alarming. Prison violates human rights standards when it comes to solitary confinement, which is deemed to be inhumane by the United Nation. Solitary confinement increases instability and violence in inmates as well as PTSD, distortions of time and perception (American Friends Service Committee). At some point, offenders are released back to society with more issues and struggling to maintain a normal life which can lead to committing more crimes in order to go back to prison.
It’s not uncommon for ex-felons to be homeless because society makes it intentionally more difficult to get a job and convicts are ineligible for welfare, student loans, public housing, food stamps and are socially disconnected from their communities. To some, prison is the only path they can take to have their basic needs met and to survive. Mass incarceration perpetuates a cycle that’s extremely difficult to leave and affects more than just an individual, but their family and their future. The overpopulation of prisons in the United States is due to multiple factors such as the war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing as well as greed from corporation. It’s an inhuman system that needs to be dealt with immediately.
Tough-on-crime has become irrational and has become tough on people without rehabilitating them back to society as law-abiding citizens. Unfortunately, a lot of factors will make it difficult to make actual progress in order to reform the entire system.