A Nation Behind Bars

Jaeden Amiri-Owens, Staff Writer

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  According to The International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, while it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Various other statistics exist, and many place Seychelles (a small archipelago nation with only 756 actual prisoners) as first place instead of America, partially due to its small total population and large number of incarcerated Somali pirates. But America is undoubtedly at least second place out of over 196 countries.

In 2017, the Prison Policy Initiative estimated that in the United States that over 2.3 million people were incarcerated out of a population of 323.1 million. This means that approximately 0.71% of the population was behind bars.

0.71% may seem like a small number, but it’s only a snapshot in time. It doesn’t capture the massive input and output of prisoners. One example where this is prominent is our jail system. 641,000 people leave prison every year, but 11 million people go to jail each year. In fact, 70% of people housed in jails at any given time have not even been convicted and are simply awaiting their trial.

It is important to clarify the difference between jails and prisons. Jails and prisons are used for different purposes. Jails are used to hold people in pre-trial detention, to hold people about to be transferred to another facility, or to house inmates serving small misdemeanor sentences, typically under a year. They also often have less well-developed facilities, due to the fact that prisoners are not staying there for a long time. People awaiting their trial can typically pay bail to be released from custody, which they can retrieve once they show up to court.

Prison, on the other hand, is where convicts serve long-term sentences with more facilities.

These extremely high numbers pose a major problem: Prison overpopulation. Our prisons simply cannot hold this many inmates. The problem has led to policies where multiple inmates are put into one cell,and this leads to increases in prisoner misconduct, and lack of access to programs and services.

The effects of prison overpopulation aren’t just bad for inmates. The US and it’s states spends about $31,000 per inmate every year, according to a report released by the Bureau of Prisons. In some states, such as New York, that cost can be as high as $60,000.

A recent example of these issues was the Vaughn prisoner riot in Delaware, where prison staff were outnumbered 75 to 1. This was due to overcrowding and under staffing, and a lack of access to proper resources. Prisoners had complained for months before some of them eventually rioted.

In fact, the prisoner on the phone with hostage negotiators said “I want a full apology from the governor for the decades of oppression that’s been going on here, they keep everything in house in here. Not no more.” He also stated “We just want the world to know that this wasn’t for nothing, or this is [going to be] a trial run.”

Prisoners are upset with the current system, and with good reason. After the incident, many inmates spent weeks in solitary confinement without medical services or contact with their families. 

So, what exactly is causing this problem? There are a few different reasons, but three major ones are the prevalence of long sentences, especially for drug offenders, the “guilty by association” policy, and a lack of reform and access to resources. Drug offenders make up 1 in 5 of all incarcerated people. There are 1 million drug possession arrests each year, and nearly 6 times as many drug possession arrests as there are drug sales or manufacturing arrests.

In many states, and even on a federal level, there are mandatory minimum-sentence laws. These laws mean that a certain number of years must be given for certain crimes. The effects of these laws can and has lead to first time nonviolent drug offenders being sentenced for life.

Another issue is the guilty by association policy. A widely used example is murder. If a murder is committed during the process of a separate crime, anyone involved in that crime can (and often is) charged with murder. For example, a getaway driver for a bank robbery may be charged with murder if a murder is committed during the robbery. This is part of the reason why the amount of inmates incarcerated for “murder” is so high; they aren’t actually murderers, but were associated with a crime involving a murder.

The third issue is a lack of proper resources. As demonstrated in the Vaughn prison, and many prisons across the United States, underfunded and overcrowded prisons lead to disgruntled inmates without proper services for them.

Our justice system has many faults, but right now one of the biggest issues is prison and jail overcrowding. Even with 80 billion spent per year, our prisons still suffer from under staffing and overcrowding. People are locked up for many years on minor offenses due to the war on drugs, guilty by association, and mandatory minimum sentences. Some have suggested part of the issue is due to private prisons, but regardless, we need to reform our our justice and prison system now.