Friday, July 31, 2015

Prison Industrial Complex

The suicide of young Kalif Browder in my city last month, was a disturbing, disheartening and demoralizing moment. The society we live in, gives the impression that there is hope, justice and liberty for all. But incidents like these question how true that is for many who find themselves on the wrong side of the dividing line.

Kalif Browder was sixteen when he was arrested for stealing a backpack and sent to Rikers Island, a notorious prison on an island north of Brooklyn. He was not tried or convicted. He always proclaimed his innocence. While the court kept postponing his trial date he languished in prison becoming a victim to an endless cycle of violence. Beaten by correction officers and intimidated by fellow inmates his life became a "hell on earth".  In May 2013, after a thousand days of incarceration Kalif was let go without an explanation or an apology. He tried to get back to life, but the damage was done. At age 22, he committed suicide in his parent's home.

While Kalif's story can be seen as unusual and tragic, what lies behind it is more than just a failure of our criminal justice system. What is at its heart, is the savage culture of incarceration that has become emblematic of American society.

With less than 5% of the worlds population, the United States holds roughly a quarter of the planet's prisoners. 2.3 million people in America are in prisons. 1.6 million of them in state and federal prisons and the rest in local jails and immigration detention centers. Incarceration rates have increased seven times since the 1970s. A third of African American men can expect to be jailed at some point in their lives and one in nine black children has a parent behind bars in the great nation of America.

It is clear from these statistics that there is something deeply wrong in this society. Like almost everything else in this country, prisons have been a business enterprise for sometime now. Prisons are no longer a place one is sent to repent and rehabilitate. The longer an inmate is kept behind bars, the more profitable he becomes. The tax payer on average spends $68,000 per year to keep an individual locked up. There are private companies that are profiting from the tax payer. And it is a proven fact, that the more time an individual spends in prison, the chances of him or her returning goes up. It becomes harder for them to reintegrate into society starting a vicious cycle of violence and recidivism.

There is no question prison deters some people from committing crime, but for the most part the way the prison industrial complex is run today, it has lost its core purpose. It has become a place where people go to find themselves destroyed forever. The tragedy of Kalif Brower is one such example among many, that reveals the true nature of incarceration. The harm caused by mass imprisonment far out weighs any tangible benefits.

There are many reasons for the dramatic increase in the prison population in America since the 1970s. The war on drugs is sighted as one major cause. The Rockerfeller Drug Laws that were signed into effect in 1973, decimated the African American and Latino community disproportionally, whose repercussions are very much the cause of the racial makeup of the prison population today. The gun culture is another factor that has contributed to the increase in incarceration rates. While the debate around gun violence often revolves around 2nd Amendment Rights and more recently horrific mass shootings, one seldom hears about how it is a major contributor to imprisonment, predominantly of black men in impoverished neighborhoods. Possessing a fire arm is treated differently in a poor black neighborhood than in a rich one. Also federal and state "mandatory minimums" and "three strikes" rules have locked away people with impunity in large numbers for relatively minor offenses.

This month President Obama added another "first" to his list. He became the first sitting US president to visit a federal penitentiary. His goal was to draw attention to the fact as to how the prison system is not only failing society but also is becoming obese to a point of no return. After his visit he said "we have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and rehabilitate individuals" drawing attention to the very core of the problem. He was struck by the number of people serving time for "foolish youthful mistakes". He said "its not normal. It's not what happens in other countries". Another glaring statistic he pointed out was that "African American and Latinos make up 30% of our population. They make up 60% of the prison population".

Another disturbing side of the prison industrial complex, is the system of solitary confinement. An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in United States. Before he was exonerated of murder Anthony Graves spent 18 years in a Texas jail, 16 of them in solitary confinement. In an interview to the New York Times he said solitary confinement "is designed to break a man's will to live". Solitary confinement takes a severe mental toll on individuals. Studies have shown the extent of damage it can do to a person's self worth, causing depression, anger, anxiety and host of other behavioral issues. It is no wonder why people subjected to solitary confinement find it hard to blend back into society. They are permanently damaged. Weighing in on this situation President Obama said "That is not going to make us safer. That is not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? Its not smart."

Solitary confinement is an effective tool used by prison officials to discipline violent activity and chaos. It is clear though that it cannot be used to the point of destroying someone, no matter the situation. It only exacerbates a situation rather than remedying it. President Obama can have little influence over the state prison systems, but he hopes that changes at the federal level could trickle down creating a more humane situation.

If we are to build a safer and more civilized society, it is not only important to hold those who break the law to account but also pay attention to how they are held to account. A criminal justice system that punishes criminals by demoralizing and dehumanizing them, contributes to an endless cycle of violence. If we are to decrease violence and crime it is important to make the prison system a place of rehabilitation and reform and not a place of business and profit.

There are many things that are broken in society, A growing prison population is a direct reflection and gauge of how badly things are broken. If America does not address this problem, it will be contributing to a false notion, that things are okay. It is commendable that President Obama in the last months of his presidency is shining a light on this issue. It is time for laws to be passed to shed some weight off of the obese prison industrial complex.

In 1962, Anthony Burgess published A Clockwork Orange. Set in a dystopian world this novel follows the life and times of its protagonist Alex, a hardened remorseless sociopath. The story ends with Alex being sent to prison, where he is chosen as a perfect candidate to take part in an experiment that would rid him of all criminal instincts. Alex is subjected to a series of situations where he is shown extreme acts of violence to a point where he is repulsed by it. Alex finally walks away seemingly cured, but we never know if he really was or was he just playing along to please the powers in order to get out of jail. This book is a seminal meditation on crime and rehabilitation. The verdict on whether the prison system can actually decrease crime and reform some criminals is uncertain. But what is certain, is that Khalif Broder could have lived and returned to society as a productive citizen if the conditions he was subjected to were not as damaging. It is what it.