‘Ineffective, unjust, cruel’: America’s prison system wreaks havoc on countless lives

Spotlight Staff
Dec 9, 2020 · 6 min read

By Lorelei Olivas

Wendy Maya/Spotlight. A painting depicting the prison system as a modern day outlet for slavery.

Nine months. That’s how long Emmanuel Gomez pled not guilty, never getting his trial, never seeing a judge. It didn’t seem to matter that he was a student, that he had plans for the future, or that he had the right to a speedy trial.

His case was dismissed eventually, but he is just one of many examples of how the criminal justice system works against, rather than for, so many individuals.

After enduring punishment in the justice system, many former prisoners find themselves still imprisoned, afraid to share their story with others still caught up in the cycle that is America’s prison system.

While the Black Lives Matter movement has begun to shed more light on the problems within the criminal justice and prison system, many people don’t realize how deep rooted these issues are.

“It’s unfortunate that it only becomes more aware when someone dies,” Gomez, a student at PCC, said. “These biases will not end unless we inform our communities, our society.”

Gomez is a member of Community Overcoming Recidivism through Education (CORE) and the Formerly Incarcerated Radical Scholars Team (FIRST), two groups on PCC’s campus that advocate for and support students impacted by the prison system. He was arrested just after starting at PCC, however his case was later dismissed.

The prison system effectively works as a vicious cycle, Gomez went on to explain. Once someone is sucked in, it can be nearly impossible to escape. This comes from not one aspect of the structure, but it as a whole. From police to the courts, every part of the criminal justice system disadvantages those who are arrested, most notably minorities and people of color. African Americans are those who suffer the most at the hands of the system; they are more likely to be arrested as well as convicted, and they face lengthier sentences than white Americans according to a report to the United Nations conducted by The Sentencing Project.

Looking back at the history of policing and criminal justice in this country, it gives a clear picture to why things are the way they are now. Police in America evolved from slave patrols in the South, and in the North, they were established to enforce labor.

“City policing was founded on capturing runaway slaves. It’s established on racism, so why would it be different now?”

“Anyone in a position of power can abuse it,” Michael Garcia said, another PCC student and member of CORE and FIRST. “City policing was founded on capturing runaway slaves. It’s established on racism, so why would it be different now?”

Garcia’s family has a history of being incarcerated, and for a while he was no different. He managed to escape the cycle, and he said PCC has helped him a lot on that path.

In the courts, a lot of people find things are not much different. Much of the problem stems from whether or not a person has money. If one can post bail, there’s no need to worry about staying in prison, or if one can afford a private defense attorney, they’re much more likely to be found not guilty. And those who can’t afford either of those things? They are the ones who suffer in prison and are disproportionately people of color.

“What we have now is a system that we know, there is proof and fact, there is data that it disproportionately affects marginalized and historically oppressed communities,” Ryan Howard, a professor of sociology at PCC, said. “The majority of people sitting in county jails, their only crime is that they’re poor.”

This can be seen in the recent release of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager accused of fatally shooting two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin during a protest. Two million dollars were raised for his bail, and he was released Nov. 20.

Kalief Browder was an African American male who was arrested for stealing a book bag at age 16. Despite maintaining his innocence, he was kept in jail nearly three years, two of those in solitary confinement, and never got a trial. After multiple attempts to end his life in prison, his case was dropped, but Browder went on to take his life in 2015.

So much of the prison system is dependent on money to the point where it is valued over human lives.

So much of the prison system is dependent on money to the point where it is valued over human lives. Most prisons are overpopulated to the point of it being unsanitary and dangerous, both to prisoners and the guards. During a global pandemic, conditions have only worsened. In the Maricopa County jail system in Arizona, over 900 inmates contracted COVID-19 according to the Phoenix New Times. Cases were not taken seriously, with sick inmates having to stay in crowded quarters, allowing the virus to spread rapidly. Some inmates were forced to work while sick. Overpopulation causes inhuman issues such as this and allows more private prisons to be opened, which are operated for profit.

“Overpopulation is the lane that private prisons are able to operate. If there wasn’t overpopulation within the state prison system or the county jail, there’s no need for private prisons,” Howard said.

America incarcerates more people than any other country in the world.

America incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, which only feeds into overpopulation. In the same vein, two out of three prisoners released are arrested again, with more than 50 percent of them going back to prison. Compared to Norway’s 20 percent recidivism rate, the United States’s is high.

There is a huge stigma around those released from prison, with the formerly incarcerated suffering through punishment even after being released. Their unemployment rate is nearly five times the national average. In more than 10 states, the formerly incarcerated lose their right to vote indefinitely and may even require a governor’s pardon in order to gain those rights back.

In other states, the right to vote is only given back after felons complete probation or parole, and even then, there are fines and fees they must pay first. California voters passed Proposition 17 this November, which restores voting rights for those on parole. This makes it one of 16 other states where voting rights are restored immediately upon release.

Both Garcia and Gomez feel strongly about this issue, as they have first hand experience with the prejudice towards the formerly incarcerated.

“As a felon, you’re labeled for the rest of your life,” Garcia said. “I barely got my right back to vote.”

Gomez explained that working with formerly incarcerated students made him realize that many of them try to hide their past.

“You have students who have been institutionalized, who are a part of CORE and FIRST, who aren’t identified as formerly incarcerated because they are embarrassed. It’s a shame to some people because of the opportunities that will be diminished. The way you’ll be seen,” Gomez said.

Garcia and Gomez believe that this stereotype in people’s minds is irrational and unfair. After all, the formerly incarcerated did their time, they faced their punishment, so why shouldn’t they be treated like regular citizens?

Prison reform seems like something that may be far away, especially with California voters not passing Proposition 25 which would’ve ended the cash bail system. However, many other countries have effective prison systems that are focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. As said earlier, Norway has a very low recidivism rate as compared to America’s. Not only that, but its incarceration rate is much lower as well. In the United States, 655 of 100,000 people are incarcerated. Norway’s rate is only 63 of every 100,000.

Professor Howard brought up a point that many people don’t think about when it comes to the prison system: the cost to taxpayers.

“People really don’t comprehend a lot of times what it costs to keep an individual in prison for a year,” Howard said. “In the state of California it’s approximately sixty-five to seventy thousand dollars a year to house an inmate.”

It all seems to go in a circle: people get arrested, do their time, and are let out into a society that looks down on them. Facing this hostility and this lack of job availability forces many formerly incarcerated to rely on what got them into prison in the first place, which in turn results in them getting rearrested. This cycle repeats over and over, and yet nothing changes.

“One of my favorite quotes is ‘the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.’”

“One of my favorite quotes is ‘the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome,’” Howard said. “A lot of the stuff we do in our society is really insane, especially when it comes to our criminal justice system.”

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