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Three Ideas for Fixing Our Prison System

August 19, 2009

The US needs prison reform as badly as it needs affordable health care.

I haven’t written about this before. Because America does such an excellent job of compartmentalizing its incarcerated population from its elite, those of us living in eastern urban areas rarely need to think about our prisons. Traveling across the wastelands of Kansas and Nebraska and Utah, however, where one is as likely to see a chain gang as an elk, and where the signs remind you not to pick up hitch-hikers instead of not to litter, one begins to give this some this thought. In 1998, the US surpassed the former Soviet Union as the world’s foremost jailer, with approximately 1 in 100 Americans behind bars as of last year. Compared to other advanced industrialized countries, the US imprisons 5 times more of its citizens per capita; half of these are African American.

The political economy of this “prison industrial complex” coupled with the political incentives to appear hard on crime have contributed to a dysfunctional and inhumane system. Our prisons are brutally overcrowded: in Chino, where a riot occurred early this month, 5,900 inmates were in a facility designed to hold 3,000. Treatment of prisoners often falls far below human rights standards. In June this year, Marcia Powell, a 48-year-old behind bars for prostitution, died of heat exhaustion after being left in an outdoor holding cell in 108-degree Arizona heat, prompting both an investigation by the Arizona’s Department of Corrections and questions by feminist activists as to why prositutes are being imprisoned in the first place, whereas those who make use of them rarely fall afoul of the law? Indeed, 82% inmates are imprisoned for non-violent “crimes”: thanks to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, one man is serving a life sentence in California for stealing a $2.50 pair of socks.

We should also bear in mind the impact on communities, families and society at large of such a highly-incarcerated population. As Vesla Weaver argued in a presentation I saw last Spring, incarceration shapes the lives not only of inmates but of their partners (who must now coordinate employment, social schedules and even their attire according to the rules attending prison visits), their children (many of whom lose parents for misdemeanors) and communities (who lose social capital when significant numbers of their young men are behind bars). The adverse effect of prison policies on families is too rarely a consideration in the political process.

I know much too little about this topic to offer anything like a comprehensive recipe for change, but here are three specific ways to improve things behind which readers of this blog can throw their support:

1) Federally enforce a zero tolerance policy on prison rape. In addition to sometimes-lethal physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse of inmates is not only commonplace but so acceptable in US society as to be fodder for political satire. (Interesting that what we are quick to condemn when inflicted on political prisoners is so easy to consider commonplace when targeted at those we consider “criminal.”) A a 2001 Human Rights Watch report showcased the epidemic of prison rape in the US. Congress responded by creating the Prison Elimination Act of 2003, largely designed to generate facts and recommendations. The Congressional National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, released its five-year study this past June, showing based on tens of thousands of interviews that nearly 60,000 inmates have suffered sexual abuse in prison. It also shows that more prisoners are abused by staff than by other inmates, and that gender minorities are at the greatest risk. The NPREC’s recommendations are that 5% of federal funding for prisons be contingent on states’ reduction in incidence rates in accordance with standards now being drafted by the Attorney General. But 5% may be much too low a penalty to check such well-entrenched abuse; and at any rate the federal government will also need to consider providing resources for states to implement the standards, which would involve a significant overhauling of prison culture.

2) Reform America’s sex-offender registry. Incarceration even for minor abuses has lasting effects even once a person leaves prison, due to stigma, lack of resources for reintegration, and political disenfranchisement. This is a broad problem but in no realm is it more dysfunctional the the national sex-offender registry, as outlined in a detailed and damning expose in The Economist. This system is a net which sweeps up so many people convicted under Puritanical US laws for things as minor as sleeping with a partner while both are underage, that it is rendered almost useless at the task of helping parents protect their children from genuine predators, yet it ruins the lives of not only “convicts” but their familes as well, preventing them from holding down jobs or taking their children to the playground. I concur with the proposals laid out in that article, which include:

“Instead of lumping all ‘sex offenders’ together on the same list for life, states should assess each person individually and include only real threats. Instead of posting everything on the internet, names could be held by the police, who would share them only with those, such as a school, who need to know. Laws that bar sex offenders from living in so many places should be repealed, because there is no evidence that they protect anyone: a predator can always travel. The money that a repeal saves could help pay for monitoring compulsive molesters more intrusively—through ankle bracelets and the like.”

3) Finally, restore voting rights to ex-cons.The patchwork of state laws disenfranchising over four million former felons from voting in federal elections nearly ensures that this population will be overlooked by the government. Last month, Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. John Conyers introduced parallel bills in the House and Senate that would restore voting rights in federal elections to those currently denied this civil right. I can see nothing to lose from such a proposal and much to gain: citizens more likely to have a stake in the rule of law, a government more responsive to its incarcerated population, and a nation better served overall by a more humane criminal justice system. You can support this action by clicking here or linking to this post.

I could go on – and so can you, in comments. Point is, health care reform has dominated the headlines this summer, and it is of course widely overdue. But let’s not lose sight of glaring problems in the criminal justice system, and incremental changes underway that need our attention, support and oversight as well.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.