Over 6.74 million people are supervised by U.S. adult correctional systems, and tens of millions of people have a criminal record. And to many, their rights don’t matter because “they must have done something wrong.”
Let’s start with the fact that “we spend billions to keep 480,000 people locked in cages without a conviction.” And that abhorrent criminal justice system practice is the tip of the iceberg — this is getting worse, not better. Jeff Sessions just recently reinstated the practice of allowing law enforcement to seize personal property without a conviction or even an indictment.
Did you know that around 95% of convictions are obtained through guilty pleas, and, more specifically, through plea bargaining? That means that only 5% of prisoners receive a fair trial. Most of us have seen it on television: the prosecutor comes in, says that if they really want to take it to trial, they’ll push for the maximum sentencing, but if they plead guilty, they’ll be charged with a lesser crime or receive a shorter sentence. Given the fact that many people who are arrested do not have the resources (time and money) to feel confident in their legal counsel’s chances in front of a jury, they’ll go with the guilty plea just to be on the safer side, guilty or not.
So, if the punishment really fits the crime, what is the justification behind making a deal to release them sooner?
Or does the punishment not fit the crime?
Or are they admitting that, in large part, prisons fail to rehabilitate?
Or is there often not enough evidence to lock up a cash cow (inmate), so intimidation tactics are required?
If you argue that the prosecution wouldn’t even bother proceeding with the process if the evidence wasn’t there to make a conviction…okay…but 95%? Only 5% of people convicted of a crime enact their 6th Amendment right to a trial in front of a jury of their peers? That seems right to you? Well, it’s not right. In fact, prosecutorial strategies when someone decides to take it to trial can be downright abhorrent, including blatantly adding additional charges.
But they have to in order to justify specific laws (and keep the money coming in). Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, wrote a great piece for the New York Times about the utter fragility of the American justice system. She quoted Angela J. Davis, who pointed out that “if the number of people exercising their trial rights suddenly doubled or tripled in some jurisdictions, it would create chaos.”
Even tripled would still mean 85% of people convicted of a crime pled guilty, and our court system wouldn’t be able to handle it.
As Michelle Alexander went on to say:
Such chaos would force mass incarceration to the top of the agenda for politicians and policy makers, leaving them only two viable options: sharply scale back the number of criminal cases filed (for drug possession, for example) or amend the Constitution (or eviscerate it by judicial ‘emergency’ fiat). Either action would create a crisis and the system would crash — it could no longer function as it had before. Mass protest would force a public conversation that, to date, we have been content to avoid.
Did you know they arrested an estimated 1,552,432 for drug abuse in 2012, more than any other reason by at least 250,000 people? Do you believe you should have to go to prison just for doing drugs? Really? Prison? That doesn’t seem just a hair insane to you?
Time made the “bold” claim that 39% of prisoners should be set free, and they make a good argument for it — 25% are non-violent, low-level offenders who “would be better served by alternatives to incarceration such as treatment, community service, or probation,” and 14% have already served long sentences for more serious crimes and can be safely set free. At no point do they mention drugs, although I would imagine that they make up a good portion of that 25% reference, since, you know, 46.2% of inmates are serving time for drug offenses. (Yep, legalize illicit drugs, cut the prison population almost in half.)
39% is a lowball. It’s the bare minimum for any reasonable person. That bare minimum, according to Time, “would save $20 billion annually, enough to employ 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers, or 327,000 school teachers.”
Speaking of police officers, how do you regard them in your neighborhood? How do they react to you in general? To me, they feel like they’re either out to protect me, or watching to see if I speed, swerve, or text. But in a lot of neighborhoods, and to a lot of other people, there’s an over-policing problem. There are at least as many people with criminal records as there are people with college degrees (70 million).
I’ve been put in handcuffs but not brought downtown — they considered handcuffing a white college kid punishment enough for smoking pot. When I was in high school, I was pulled over for texting while driving. The cop saw that I lived in the community and let me off with a warning. The same cop, a year later, did it again, that time for speeding. Three interactions with cops, three times I was outright breaking the law, and three times I was let off with a “come on, whippersnapper, think next time.”
Meanwhile, 1,552,432 are arrested for drug “abuse.” If you ask me, bankrupting people for getting needed medication seems more like drug abuse than anything related to getting high.
Some of you might be asking: well, what about rapists and murderers? Kidnappers and extortionists? Armed robbers and arsonists? But those offenses apply to far less than half of the inmates, and that’s not to mention the roughly 120,000 innocent people serving time for crimes they didn’t commit, and the half a million serving time just for being arrested without a conviction. The question still stands: Why do you hate prisoners as a whole?
Do you hate Jerry Hatfield, who served 35 years in jail without ever being convicted? Or the Central Park Five, who served upwards of thirteen years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit? If you do, no worries, the president — for reasons that I’m sure definitely are not racist — is with you.
Besides, prison is archaic to begin with. Trying to solve crime by locking people up does not solve crime. But that’s the most politically solvent route. Short-term solutions to social issues might win elections, but they don’t solve underlying problems. For example, a short-term solution to crime is being “tough on crime,” wherein you react after the fact while investing nil in prevention. Granted, you get those stats, you get those figures, you get that reelection, you get that promotion, and on and on it goes.
Examples of long-term solutions make up a long list, but here’s a few obvious ones: community empowerment through economic reallocation, highly accessible and even proactive addiction and mental health care resources, drug legalization and other law reforms, equal education, free and proactive health care, equal infrastructure investment, better law enforcement training, less policing; the list goes on and on and on.
To hate all prisoners and also do nothing about criminality is, if not stupidity, apathy, outright hatred, whatever you want to label it. It’s not good. And, I hate to break it to you, but even guilty criminals are people whether you like it or not. But no, yeah, let’s keep talking about how pit bulls are misrepresented. The childishness isn’t just rampant, it’s encouraged, and nothing will change if it continues. (Meanwhile, people are suffering at unimaginable levels and at a staggering volume.)
You need to ask yourself why you hate prisoners so much. What do you have against the entire prison population that leads you to be okay with prisoners being forced into hard labor with (extremely close to) zero pay? Why do you hate them so much that you don’t mind them being stripped of in-person visitation for no other reason but profit, wherein they’re limited to video visitation that can cost a dollar per minute? Where do you stand on the horrific impacts of the inexcusably inhumane solitary confinement? Google Scholar offers over 70,000 results for the keywords “solitary confinement prison,” so have fun with that. Or, you can take my word for it — if you’re okay with the idea of someone being locked in a small room for days on end, you’re a sadist.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ slogan is: “Correctional excellence. Respect. Integrity.” Probably the most common police motto, as popularized by the LAPD, is: “To protect and to serve.” And in the United States Department of Justice’s mission statement, they write, “to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior.”
I guess I get it. You hate prisoners because you trust in your government and you respect — above all reason and basic decency — their authority and applaud their involvement without question. It’s just odd to me that people so typically adamant about the righteousness of the criminal justice system also tend to shout for less government interference.
Is it racism? Is it contempt for those economically inferior? Is it both? Yep! And, hey, the profits from the prison industrial complex are nothing to bat an eye at, it’s just too bad it’s coming out of your pocket.
How would you feel about being defined by the biggest mistake of your life? If that one misstep took away your right to vote, subjugated you to violence and abuse both sexual and nonsexual, made it significantly more difficult to get a job or a home?
Could you imagine doing something at the age of seventeen and still being punished for it when you’re in your forties, your fifties, your seventies? What if you were sentenced to seven years to life, and were up for parole and denied it year after torturous year, even with a glowing record and passed educational courses? Denied it even though you offer undeniable value to the capitalist infrastructure because the prison industrial complex profits far more from your imprisonment than from your tax dollars.
I’ll tell you why you hate prisoners: because there’s a part of you who knows it could have been you sitting in that cell had the circumstances been different. But there’s a larger part of you who shoves that knowledge down into oblivion with the weight of fear, hatred, and hypocrisy, three traits that seem to be selling like hotcakes right now, even more so than usual.
I would like to leave you with a piece written by Edwin Jay Hutchinson, who’s currently serving 30 years to life for a nonviolent, no-weapons-involved robbery because of California’s three strikes law: