Prison Reform Needs More Public, Political Attention

Posted on March 3, 2011


March 1, 2011 | by Jason Campbell, regular columnist

As our nation moves closer to the next presidential election, debates on both the common and more particular areas of political interest are rising.

In this current election cycle, the policies of the Obama administration are certainly at the forefront as the Republican Party grooms its contenders in the form of not progressing their ideals so much as ensuring the defeat of Mr. Obama. Within the context of this growing debate, however, there is something that appears to be continually lost — prison reform.

As it stands today, the United States claims 5 percent of the world’s population yet houses 25 percent of its inmates. Though this number is absurdly high for a nation that boasts itself as being the “land of the free,” China in comparison has a population four times higher than ours yet is able to boast a mere 14 percent of the world’s prison population.

How is it that in the midst of electoral debate the simple question of why our “shining city on a hill” would claim an exponentially higher incarceration rate than one of the world’s leaders in inhuman oppression never brought up?

Though the former statistics are cause for pause, it becomes far more startling when put in a different words. Currently one in 100 American adults are in prison opposed to one in 400 in 1970. When we include the number of adults on probation, that statistic turns into one in 31 American adults.

To find the cause for this drastic increase one need not go far. The number of drug offenders in prison today is 13 times higher than what it was in 1980, meaning that half a million Americans are currently in prison for non-violent drug offenses (a 1,200 percent increase since 1980 and furthermore constituting 21.2 percent of the total prison population).

In monetary terms, the United States government spends approximately $40 billion on fighting its absurd “War on Drugs” and the overall spending in this country on prisons is nearly $60 billion.

Considering that prison costs are the second highest costs for the states (first is Medicaid) it is difficult to understand how a bankrupt state like California can continue to spend nearly $50,000 a year per prisoner and yet still not have any serious debate over prison reform.

The answer may be given that prisons are an effective means at rehabilitating drug users. When analyzing the numbers, however, it is quite obvious that prisons are neither an effective nor moral solution to this issue. Ex-convicts generally have a 50 percent chance of returning to prison after release (in contrast, two-thirds of released convicts return to prison within three years) yet drug rehabilitation centers witness an 80 percent success rate on their patients.

One possible cause for the failure of prisons to rehabilitate drug offenders is the state of life prisoners are left with following their release. While the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. is currently floating around 9 percent, the unemployment rate for ex-convicts is nearly 50 percent.

In addition to this, incarceration generally results in over 40 percent loss in financial earnings for inmates. This is made only worse by the fact that once released, inmates often face such high parole fees and child support that they are unable to support themselves and worse yet, have no hope of support because they have such a difficult time finding a job.

For the callous of heart, recall that a person being incarcerated does not just affect their own lives but their families and especially children. This is made most horrifying by the fact that currently one in 28 children has a parent in prison.

Prisons are undoubtedly a remarkably complex and difficult issue to find a solution to, as they always have been. From the perspective of ensuring the health and security of society as a whole, there is no doubt that we must sequester the more dangerous elements of our populace from the remainder.

The danger this mentality poses, however, is the loss of our overall humanity. We too often see the prisoner behind the bars when we should see the man or woman who witnessed a tragic circumstance. By approaching prison systems from the perspective of lowering crime rates or fighting an unethical war on drugs, perhaps we should consider that both inmates and drug offenders are not animals to be callously tossed about — they are our fellow men and deserve the basic respect of being seen as such.

This is not political or economic issue so much as it is an ethical issue. While we are stripping the humanity off of those we deem too dangerous to keep in society as a whole, we in turn are stripping ourselves of our basic human decency.

It is time for our politicians to stop cowering in fear of an issue that desperately needs our attention. Prison reform is something that we no longer have the luxury of ignoring and by ignoring it, we are threatening the destruction of thousands of more lives.

The heartless gears of justice will continue its depraved consumption of humanity until we force the system to undergo a much needed alteration. How many more of our brethren will we allow to perish under our own apathy and barbaric vengeance until we finally exalt ourselves with our potential and bring about real change?

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