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Are Prisons a Solution or a Problem?

Are Prisons a Solution or a Problem?

Over the last 40 years, the United States prison population expanded by roughly 500%. Today, there are around 2.2 million incarcerated people in American prisons. That is larger than the populations of all but four U.S. cities – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. This is the largest prison population in the world and the second largest per capita. Throughout the late 20thand early 21stcenturies, there was broad consensus amongst both conservatives and liberals, including then-Senator, former Vice President, and now 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden, that crime was a problem of increasing prominence and that aggressive policing and harsh sentencing was the solution. In defense of his 1994 crime bill, Biden argued that it didn’t matter why people were committing crimes, all that mattered was getting “these people off the streets” – and into prisons. The shortcomings of this position are obvious. By not addressing the structural sources of crime, the prison population has skyrocketed, especially amongst the black and Latino communities, which have faced disproportionate targeting by law enforcement. This comes despite falling crime rates, thus leading to us asking: have we failed our fellow citizens with our policies on crime?

For most on the left, and many on the center and right, mass incarceration has been accepted as a failure with reform becoming a universally accepted platform for 2020 candidates. In order to address this inherent problem of the U.S. prison system, some have proposed a more radical move: prison abolition. The crux of this argument is that we should focus our efforts construction of alternatives focused on fighting the root causes of crime rather than encourage mass incarceration. Prisons, abolitionists argue, cause more harm than good. Angela Davis, one of the movement’s most prominent advocates, argues that prisons “reproduce the very conditions that lead people to [them].” Therefore, that elimination of prisons could actually be a tool for fighting crime. 

Moreover, abolitionists highlight the systemic issues, like poverty, addiction, and mental-health problems that have been increasingly harshly criminalized. These issues, they argue, are made worse by incarceration. Finding good-paying, stable jobs after prison can be exceptionally difficult. According to Stanford professor, Joan Petersilia, 60-75% of formerly incarcerated people remain jobless a year after their release. This leaves people in exceptionally vulnerable economic positions, which creates a so-called prison trap. Due to their precarious finances and situations, many make the return to the illicit money-making pursuits which landed them in prison in the first place. Almost two-thirds of those released find themselves back in prison within three years. Not only that, some politicians have instead stated that some prison sentences should be harsher to further pressure potential offenders to not commit a crime – a policy that has not worked.

Much of the modern criminal justice policy traces its origins to the reconstruction-era South, though structural racism was prominent throughout the United States. Though blacks were nominally free, they remained subject to virulent racism and systematic oppression. This led to a cultural norm in which they were more heavily targeted by law enforcement. Not only was this a powerful way of creating a racial equality gap, it also allowed the state to legally create a new slave class. To this day, inmates are required to work for virtually no pay at all. The Federal Bureau of Prisons provides inmates with a wage of about $0.90 an hour to produce a wide range of government and commercial goods. Inmates who work in the prison kitchens often make even less at $0.12-0.40 an hour. This makes their post-prison lives difficult as well as they will not have the necessary means to get back on their feet. Thus, advocates of prison abolition say that it is an evolution of the abolitionist work of the 19thcentury by allowing inmates to return to a civilian life that has otherwise been denied to them.  

This does not mean that critics of this movement do not also have legitimate points. Indeed, society needs some way to dissuade crime and some place to hold dangerous individuals. However, abolitionists argue that prisons notonly encourage crime, but they also reinforce the circumstances that led to a criminal life in the first place. Additionally, abolitionists often like to note that non-violent offenders turn violent in prison, and violent offenders become more violent.  

Despite these points, success for abolitionists remains very much in doubt. Abolishing prisons requires a thorough rethinking of our societal structure, and there are legitimate concerns of doing so. Regardless, abolitionists are pushing the dialogue around prison reform forward, and asking us to search for solutions beyond our comfort zones. They are asking us to think critically about the morality and productiveness of prisons. Discussion of prison reform needs to be holistic and bold. It should include an understanding of the structural and historical causes of incarceration. Solutions need to be focused on prevention and rehabilitation rather than just punishment. Thus, we should recognize that the conversation of prisons should move our society forward, instead of keeping it chained to the past. 

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