To start off, happy Black History month! I think this month, and the celebration of black culture, is a very important thing and something that we should all celebrate. People like to say that we should celebrate all cultures, all year round, and of course they’re right, but there’s nothing wrong with focusing on a specific group. I think sometimes when we strive for equality we tend to ignore the uniqueness of everyone around us. The more we acknowledge and celebrate our differences the more likely we are to acknowledge and celebrate the things that we all share.
The issue that I’ve decided to write on today is one that’s been heavy on my heart for a long time, but in the last few years has really been pushed to the forefront of my mind. Oddly enough, the popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black, a story that focuses on an upper class, prissy white woman’s time in jail, really made me evaluate the American prison system in a way that I never had before. I think shows like that, while being funny and interesting, can also be really poignant and relevant, opening our eyes to the pain of others. Art, particularly television, movies and books, really give us a great example of what it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes.
Now while Orange is the New Black highlights the strength and spirit of women in the prison system (while also showing their faults and why they deserve to be there) that isn’t what I’m going to be focusing on today. I’m going to talk about how the American prison system has adapted itself into the newest way to keep minorities, specifically poor black Americans, down and out in the United States.
We can see how this is the case by focusing through three separate but connected lenses.
Here are some very straightforward stats. I’ll include links to the sources down below.
- In America there are 2,220,300 citizens in prison or jail, giving America the largest prison population of any country in the world.
- America makes up 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prison population
- While crime in America is at an all-time low since the 1970’s, the prison system has grown 300% since then
- The leading private prison corporation CCA made $7.1 billion in 2011
- On average, 77% of prisoners return to prison within 5 years
- People of color make up 30% of the US population, but they make up 60% of the prison population.
- On top of that, 70% of minors in the prison system are minorities, showing an increase in the incarceration rate of minorities.
2. Rehabilitation vs Punishment
I’ve provided some stats, but now I’m going to talk about why those stats exist. Our justice system is supposed to be about rehabilitation, but as we can see by the stats above that clearly that is not taking place. Timeout might work for a three year old, but obviously that it is hardly the best option for adults and even teenagers.
The problem that the incarceration system gives us is a systemic one. As the stats have shown, the majority of prisoners are minorities, most of them from tragically low socio-economic areas. The education system fails them and then the justice system is unweighted fairly against them. We see that even in what is supposedly the greatest nation in the world we deal our poor and impoverished a poor hand at birth and then proceed to take what little they have been given. Then we blame them when they fight back.
We fail to provide them adequate facilities and faculty for schooling and then judge them when they drop out. Then we see the government, the judicial system and the police, the powerful, the majority, (who are SURPRISE predominately white) continuing this cycle of violence and incarceration all in the name of justice. When we take an objective stance we can clearly see that justice is not being served.
We have to start changing the way we look at this endless and systemic injustice if anything is going to change. That leads me to my final point.
3. Social Stigma
“If you’re in jail, you probably deserve it.” That’s a fairly common thing to hear. I’m sure I’ve said it at some point in my life. However, when we really start to think about this statement I think we can all acknowledge the hypocrisy of it. I know I personally have done enough to earn me several prison sentences. However, I’ve always been clever enough to get out of situations. I’ve always planned enough in advance to avoid trouble. I’ve always been white. Middle class. Educated. Not intimidating, pleasantly respectful.
The genetic lottery decided to award me with something I hadn’t earned and I have taken full advantage of it. There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of your genes. The problem comes when you judge other people for theirs. The problem comes when you don’t use that advantage to help others.
We have to stop having this “us vs them” mentality when it comes to those in the prison system. Those men and women in there are all someone’s child, someone’s brother and sister. Someone’s high school crush. They are all human beings with thoughts and lives as complex and intricate as your own. Do people deserve to go to prison? Yes. However, that doesn’t make them any less human. We have to recognize the humanity in everyone, no matter what they have done in the past. Prison should be about rehabilitation. Not punishment. If our prison systems are not making those prisoners better citizens then they are failing. Unfortunately, they aren’t just failing to make them better, they are statistically making them worse.
As citizens, tax payers, human beings, Christians we have to step up. We have to call for better prison systems. We have to call for more adequate and equal governing. We have to stand up for our brothers and sisters. Pulling them up with us. Giving them a hand up so that we can all stand tall together.
Next week we will be talking about a similar issue that has been weighing on my mind lately, while also historically weighing heavily on the black community. The Death Sentence.
– Andrew Kahler
Notes from author: This is obviously a pretty topical review of the prison system, but my focus was to point out the problem and provide a way for us as individuals to start dealing with it right now. Research the issue for yourself and it truly is startling how much money is made off of the prison system. I’ve included the major links of the articles below, although if you really want to look more into it, google is your friend. This stuff isn’t hidden.