Criminal Injustice: How the US Criminal Justice System Fails Inmates and Law-Abiding Citizens
Our criminal justice system has been screwed up for years — it needs reform
Written by Olaf Van Der Ween
A brief introduction
Hello reader. I am Olaf van der Veen, a Dutch student at the UWC-USA, an international school that wants to bring people together to create understanding between different cultures. The second week of march, UWC-USA organised a ‘project week’: a week with different organised trips that (hopefully) are helpful to both the people taking part and the community in which they find themselves. The trips I went on worked with the YDDC (the Youth Diagnostic & Development Center), a juvenile detention centre. We went there for two hours per day, for five days in a row, and did creative writing exercises with some of the inmates. I want to share some of my experiences from this week.
Please note that we only spent a total of ten hours there, and that we only worked with one unit. This means that my experiences are definitely limited. Also note that a large portion of this is subjective, based on my own experiences and values. I am simply writing down my experiences, connecting them to things I learned in class or read online, and sometimes speculating about the effects of my observations. I don’t claim to know everything, nor should you think that any of the things I present are facts.
I will be referring to the people I worked with as both inmates and children. I hope that you will understand this when I describe how they are both like us and unlike us: they are children, ‘normal’ people, but they do come from circumstances that many of us don’t understand, and they did commit a felony that got them in this institution. So that is why I will refer to them as both: they are both.
The system: what is wrong with it and why nobody is fixing it
In the 1960s, President Johnson declared a ‘war on crime’, which made federal crime a primary priority for the government. Of course, there are reasons why you would want such a policy; crime was- and still is — a big problem. 5 years later, in the early 70s, Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs’. Again, the reasons seem fair enough; drugs were a big problem, so it needed to be solved. However, we are now seeing the consequences of both Johnson’s and Nixon’s plan to not just make these federal priorities, but to use brute force to attempt to solve them. This has led to the US having the biggest prison population in the world, 22% of the prisoners with only 4.4% of the population, of which a large part, over 60%, are non-violent drug offenders.
However, another big problem arises not when you look at what happens to people to get them before prison, but what happens during and after their life in prison. The criminal justice system is supposed to have three purposes: to punish, to rehabilitate, and to deter. The deterrence aspect has already largely been proven not to work, but that’s a story for another day. Looking at the other two aspects, one can easily see how the focus has largely been on the punitive aspect.
This does not just affect the adult prison system. The Juvenile justice system has also suffered from this focus on punishing. Even though, in this particular facility, everyone will eventually get out, there is a limited effort to attempt to get them ready for life after prison. To be fair, there is school every morning, giving the inmates at least some opportunity to get a degree. However, there is nothing really done besides that. If one committed a crime because of issues they have with their family or home situation, they will go back to that exact same situation, without any extra skills that could help them succeed. In fact, the inmates could very well get the idea that society has given up on them entirely. This, in part, explains the high recidivism rates- almost 50% for felons in New Mexico within three years: if you put people into the exact same situation they were in before, you cannot expect anything to change.
The odd thing is that almost everyone within the system acknowledges that it is broken. From the guards to the leader of the unit we worked with to even the warden. However, none of them have the power to do anything. The power apparently lays with the governor of the state.
And that’s where another problem comes in, which has more to do with the nature of representative democracy than the prison system itself. Before governors even make it to the office, they have to get elected first, which relies on their ability to get votes. Because the focus of the people, the voters, tends to be short, a lot of the policies have to be wrapped in one-liners (just watch the current presidential election) and being ‘tough on crime’ gives some great one-liners, maybe because people want to feel safe or because of they believe criminals should be locked away. Regardless of the reason, candidates who want to get criminals out of society get elected more than those who don’t. It is hard to dissect cause and effect here (whether the people who are tough on crime get elected more or if candidates act more tough on crime to get voters), but somehow this cycle is happening, and the people in prison are the ones suffering from it the most.
The inmates and their lives: how they are and how that is different from how they are portrayed
A little bit about the people we worked with. We had the youngest group, 14–18 year-olds instead of 16–18 or 17–21 year-olds, like most other units. We had three caucasians and three latinos, which is not really representative of the YDDC as a whole: more than 90% was Latino, African American, or Native American. When asking how that could be, the unit leader said that it was partially for their protection as well.
On to the lives that they lead in this place. Before coming to the Detention Centre, I expect some Orange is the New Black/Shawshank Redemption/Prison Break kind of thing, just toned down a bit because it was for children. But when I came there I saw that that was not accurate at all, at least not for this facility. The children weren’t living a living nightmare, they seemed relatively content, mostly just fed up with specific things. Their lives didn’t seem miserable.
What their lives did seem was dull. Their schedule was the same every day, the only exceptions being some holidays or visits of family of organisations. School in the morning, sports in the afternoon, some free time, and then lights out. There was no real variety in their lives, and that seemed like the biggest problem they had. Multiple of the inmates said they wanted to do the project we were involved in because they were bored, because they didn’t have anything better to do.
Another big difference between their lives and ours is the lack of freedom that they have. I’m sure everyone knows that people in prison don’t really have any freedom, but the effects of that are often forgotten. First of all, it really sucks to have to ask to go to the bathroom, to have to cross your arms and walk in two files when moving between two facilities, to always have a guard escort you everywhere. But this also gives some insight in what could be hard for them in real life. With life being this structured and enforced, it must be hard to suddenly be thrown into the ‘normal’ world again, where you can do anything. This may or may not contribute to the high recidivism rates: when the inmates get out, they don’t know what to do, and so they relapse into the only thing they do know.
When you look at the children themselves, though, the difference is not nearly as large as one would expect it to be. In a lot of ways, they are just like us. They enjoy playing sports, some enjoy reading, they tease us (and we tease back). In fact, they are much more playful than I expected, and maybe even more playful than we were in some cases.
However, this does not mean that their pasts were not significantly different from ours. In fact, it does seem like they have had experiences that we never did. They never told us that directly, of course. You would only notice it in little things. One of these things also happened to be one of the most powerful moments in the entire trip for me.
It was day two. We had all taken our favourite quotes, and cut up the individual words. We rearranged these words to make new sentences, and from that we would make a poem. I was working with two inmates, and we had come up with three sentences: “You would not love my life”, “The story slowly worsens without you”, and “The lives in the USA have gone more intense through hate”. I know, pretty depressing lines, and this while our quotes weren’t even that depressing at the start. Then, we tried to connect these lines. I wrote down the first sentence, “You would not love my live”. The first inmate started, he added “I’ve hurt and stolen”, and then the second inmate added “killed and tricked”. This was another moment where I realised how your life has been so radically different from you, that it’s hard to even understand what they have gone through.
These two traits that I described about the prisoner seem almost incompatible. How can one be so playful, yet so troubled? However, the key to understanding how this is possible is to look at them as three-dimensional human beings. They, like all of us, are more than just a trait, or an action; they are people, with fears and desires, who can have a troubled past but still enjoy themselves playing (both American and ‘normal’) football.
The issue of (youth) incarceration in the US is so complicated because it is so related to many different areas. There are both organisational and individual problems. One must understand how society limits the children, but still acknowledge that they did make a mistake. Solving the problem is not easily done by changing one law or solving one aspect of the problem, since it is related to the incarceration system, but also larger pictures of wealth and race inequalities in general. However, the fact that it’s almost impossible to solve the entire problem doesn’t mean we can’t strive to solve at least aspects of it. Maybe that means creating awareness that there is a problem. Maybe that means working with organisations that go into the prisons to try to give the inmates guidance and mentorship. Maybe it means trying to get rid of inequality in general. Everyone can do something.
At the end of the day, the children went back into their units, and we went back into the world. For them, it might not have been more than just a few hours of spending time with other children that are your age. For us though, or for me at least, it was much more than that. It was finding out that the inmates aren’t so different after all. And it was understanding how structures and societies can impact individual lives. But most of all, it was temporarily adopting a different perspective of the world.
Olaf van der Veen
17 years old