The U.S. currently houses 2.4 million prisoners.
Our prison population has quadrupled since 1980.
All thanks to the War on Drugs, the majority of inmates are there because of non-violent drug charges. The criminalization of something that should be treated in rehabilitation centers or health service centers has led the U.S. to have the highest incarceration rate in the world.
The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is a term used to describe this rapid increase of incarceration, the privatization of prisons and the usage of prisons to address social problems. Acclaimed activist Angela Davis, who founded the organization Critical Resistance which seeks to address issues with the PIC, wrote an essay about the problem of resorting to imprisoning people as a way to rectify social problems.
She writes, “Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.”
She is absolutely right that we are treating social problems by locking away its victims – this has resulted in a humanitarian crisis in this country.
There is a sprawling industry behind the PIC that includes construction companies, advertising campaigns, investment groups, corporate stockholders and lobbyists in Washington D.C. According to a report published by the Global Research Center, the sharp increase of inmates can be pointed to the legalization of private contracting of prisoners for labor. This practice creates a demand for prisoners and pushes states to enact policies such as mandatory sentences and three strikes laws.
The PIC, including those two policies, has deeply racialized impacts. As it has been written in several reports and studies, a disproportionate amount of people of color, especially black and latino men, are the victims of the PIC.
Post incarceration programs are haphazard and unrealistic, often resulting in ex-offenders back in prison within one year. This makes it impossible for former inmates to become contributing citizens of this nation. With a felony record, getting a job, finding housing and healthcare can be very arduous.
So what are alternatives to the PIC? Several Congressmen have unsuccessfully introduced prison reform bills and blue ribbon commissions to take a serious top-down look at our criminal justice system. The latest effort is a bill introduced by Utah Senator Mike Lee and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin that would change some of the mandatory sentencing laws to lessen the racialized effects of them.
Beyond these reforms, a change in perspective is needed to move our justice system from a punitive system to a restorative one. The focus of restorative or transformative justice is not to satisfy abstract legal principles or punish the offender, rather it is to address the needs of victims, perpetrators and the involved community. At the heart of restorative justice is a process called community accountability, where a community (school, workplace, city etc.) works together to primarily provide safety and support to victims, respect their self-determination and develop strategies to address behaviors of perpetrators of injustice. The objective is to create an accountability process for perpetrators to learn from their mistakes and transform their behaviors.
The Restorative Justice Center in Atlanta is working to enhance Community Court programs and increase awareness about the benefits of restorative justice models. They have a variety of programs including treatment plans for substance abuse, educational courses, community service projects, among others. These are meant to move Atlanta courts towards problem solving instead of punishing.
Much closer to home, Emory University’s Office of Student Conduct upholds missions and goals that reflect many restorative justice values. The focus of the Office isn’t to punish offenders, rather it is to resolve alleged violations of expectations in a way that is fair, developmental and expedient.
Emory College junior Alex Harrison, one of the Co-Chairs of the Peer Review Board, explained that: “Our goal is one of education. This could mean that there is a strictly educational component that we provide to allow the student to see the impact of their action, or we could ask the students to perform a task that would help them realize the effect of their action on those around them.”
Restorative justice is practiced on a small scale in some school districts in California, but these reforms need to go beyond youth services.
We deserve a justice system that doesn’t profit by incarcerating more people. We deserve a justice system that restores balance and transforms individuals and communities.
Nowmee Shehab is a College Sophomore from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Illustration by Mariana Hernandez