Why You Should Care About Prison
by Grace Masback
I am currently reading the book “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a Harvard-educated lawyer who has dedicated himself to fighting inequality in the criminal justice system, especially mass incarceration, with his non-profit organization the Equal Justice Initiative. As someone who has won relief for 115 people on death row and successfully argued numerous cases in front of the Supreme Court, he is an inspiring role model.
His book details the horrors of the American justice system and legal process, especially in the South, and deals with issues ranging from the lack of qualified public defenders, to overcrowding in prisons, to rampant racial discrimination in Southern states, to the death penalty. No matter your political views on any of these issues, the fact that one in four African-American males will be incarcerated at some point in their lives is shocking.
Now, you are probably thinking, “This is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with me? Why should I care? I have a comfortable life, I will never go to prison nor will anyone in my immediate friend circle. Grace, you are crazy, your obsession with prison and criminal justice is weird.”
I understand your point-of-view. I do have a unique, slightly strange interest in this topic. I am fascinated with learning about prisons, local policing, persistent justice-related problems and how they can be addressed. I am not sure where my fascination stems from. Maybe it comes from the fact that I am someone who has always been outraged by injustice, willing to fight and speak up when I perceive that something is wrong. Maybe it comes from the stories of human experience that I have read in books and articles. Or maybe it is something else entirely. All of this in mind, I’m not alone in being interested in these issues.
Let me ask you something — have you ever watched (or heard of) Orange is the New Black? Given the reality that 9 out of 10 college students watch Netflix and 80% of all students reported that they use it to binge watch shows, I am assuming your answer is probably “yes.”
Well, Orange is the New Black is dealing with these prison-related issues, specifically topics such as overcrowding, racial tensions, harsh sentencing guidelines, abusive law enforcement officials, and corruption. If the topic is good enough to warrant a multiple-year, award-winning series on Netflix, then it’s time to realize that this is a topic that young people need to be thinking about.
Let me give you some facts. In some states, 14-year-olds can be sentenced to life in prison. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, jailing 700 people per 100,000, just ahead of such countries as Russia, China, and Iran, not exactly a list that you want to be on the top of. Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons has quadrupled. It costs U.S. taxpayers $33,000 a year to house the average “maximum security” inmate in federal prison. Hundreds of death row inmates in the U.S. have been exonerated, proving that they were sentenced to death for crimes that they did not commit. There aren’t enough public defenders — only 21% of public defender offices across the country have adequate funding to represent their clients. This means that the people who need legal counsel most are going without it. And, the racial divide is criminal — the incarceration rate for African-American men is more than 6 times higher than it is for white men.
So why care? If those facts alone aren’t enough, the reason to care dates back to our nation’s founding — “Home of free and land of the brave?” “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men (note, no mention of women) are created equal.” Equal? Yeah right. When we are locking up more people than we know what to do with, putting people in concrete boxes, giving in to racial injustice, potentially killing innocent people, and accepting 70% recidivism rates, something needs to change. It is our responsibility, as the next generation to take responsibility for leading our country, to bring about that change.
Prison in the U.S. used to be built around rehabilitation. Prisoners were put in cells with decent food to eat, a bed to sleep in, and a bible to read. Sentences were short. Prisoners were confined but not marginalized, encouraged to change their ways and then reemerge into society as healthy, productive members. Now, with 2.4 million inmates warehoused, we clearly have a system more focused on punishment and suffering than positive rehabilitation.
Although I understand that given the size and scope of America’s mass incarceration problem change will be halting, I yearn for a movement towards an incarceration system like that in Norway, a system that focuses on restorative justice over punitive retaliation.
Restorative justice means viewing crime as more than just breaking the law. It means understanding that crime causes harm to people, relationships and community and focusing on ways to heal the harms that have been done. It can do that via a variety of forms including, victim-offender meditation, ex-offender assistance, and community service.
Just recently, when I was doing some interviews for a photo essay about the human side of mass incarceration in the United States, I had the opportunity to sit in on a program that gave me hope for the future of our justice system. The program was called “peer court.” It was a place where young offenders could appear in front of an assembly of their peers to receive intervention and support before being thrust into the adult justice systems. Although the program I saw was only for my local community, it holds the promise of more far-reaching change.
Our generation, Gen Z, needs to be aware of this problem. We need to help our country live up to the ideals on which it was founded. We need to ensure that we can live in a world that is safer and more equitable. Our generation needs to stand for togetherness and innovation, for change. More importantly, our generation can’t stand for ignorance. So learn about this issue. Watch Orange is the New Black. Read an article about the topic or the book “Just Mercy.” Then, engage in advocacy — tell your friends, lobby your family, write to your state representative, attend a rally. Finally, correspond with inmates, learn their stories, show some empathy, and tell the world.