Our Justice System Has Gone Mad
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Every year, American taxpayers fund an estimated $60 billion for our incarceration system. This system staples together a network of public and corporate-run jails, prisons, pre- and post-release centers, juvenile detention centers and boot camps. All together, these facilities hold well over two million human beings, locked away without public oversight or scrutiny.
Yet throwing money at the perceived scourge of criminality in the United States doesn't appear to have had the desired effect: Despite the staggering incarceration statistics, violent crime has actually begun to creep up over the last two years, according to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report.
In the last several years, some signs have emerged of an increasingly organized movement of citizens, family members of the incarcerated, independent-minded judges and correctional or criminal justice experts -- who stand in firm opposition to our punitive, nonrehabilitative incarceration system.
Viewed through an optimistic lens, the United States might genuinely be at the beginning of a trend toward real criminal justice reform. Meanwhile, millions of Americans have already paid far too high a price for shortsighted penological policies. Floridian Yraida Guanipa is among them.
Guanipa spent the last ten and a half years locked in federal penitentiaries in Florida, locked away from her Miami community, her extended family and two young boys.
Her offense: She agreed to pick up a sealed package for a friend, which turned out to contain cocaine. Although Guanipa had never been arrested before -- and had never been a drug user -- she was hit with a thirteen-year "drug conspiracy" prison sentence on par with a sentence that a major drug trafficker would have received. Guanipa's good standing in the community, her lack of criminal background and the fact that she had a 1-year-old and a 2-year old had no impact on her sentence.
The story has become sadly familiar to me, particularly as I have spent the last few years corresponding with, meeting and interviewing women like Guanipa in jails and prisons across the country.
In the decade of her imprisonment, Guanipa witnessed two suicides; countless incidents of medical negligence; the brutality of prison retaliation; and the everyday reality of sexual relations between male guards and female inmates.
Guanipa became an outspoken advocate for other prisoners as a self-educated jailhouse lawyer, but most prisoners talk about retreating within themselves to try to survive the ordeal. Concern for collective well-being is difficult, if not impossible, when individual survival is on the line.
"Unfortunately, that's what prison does to us," Guanipa explains. "It takes the human feelings out of our body, and we just try to survive."
Tasteless films like Let's Go to Prison notwithstanding, what really goes on in prisons is still a mystery to most Americans, as are the immeasurable collateral consequences of incarceration on families and communities. Arrest and incarceration are woven into the fabric of American life: Today, a black man has one chance in three of ending up in prison at some point in his life, and is more likely to go to prison than to graduate from college.
According to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the US prison and jail population hit a new high of 2,193,798 men and women at the end of 2005, representing a 2.7 percent increase over the previous year. A record number of more than 200,000 women are now doing time behind bars -- an estimated 80 percent of whom are mothers. Analysis by the Women's Prison Association has shown that female incarceration has jumped 757 percent since 1977.
More than 95,000 juveniles are also in custody, held in the kinds of facilities that only seem to make their lives more troubled than they were to begin with. As one 14-year-old girl put it to me in Seattle's King County Juvenile Detention Center, "This place just teaches us to be better criminals. It's like a criminal training school."
One in thirty-two US adults are now under some form of correctional supervision. Although Americans only constitute 5 percent of the world's population, one-quarter of the entire world's inmates are contained in our jails and prisons, something that baffles other democratic societies that have typically used prisons as a measure of last resort, especially for nonviolent offenders.
But mass incarceration in America remains a nonissue, largely because of a lack of any serious or effective discourse on the part of our political leaders. At most, election season brings out the kinds of get-tough-on-crime platforms that have already given us misguided Three Strikes and mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.
But there are now a few signs that today's insatiable carceral state might eventually find it harder to find bodies to fill our already dramatically overcrowded facilities. In December, 2006, a federal judge gave Republican Governor Schwarzenegger until June 2007 to devise a real plan to relieve severe overcrowding in California's thirty-three prisons. Designed to hold no more than 81,000 men and women, California's state prison system is overflowing with more than 173,000 inmates who are often crammed in eight-person cells or can be found sleeping on packed-to-capacity gym floors.
A New Year's weekend riot at a Chino State Prison involved hundreds of inmates and sent more than two dozen to the hospital. Schwarzenegger has already authorized shipment of California inmates to private prisons in other states as well as more money for building new prisons. Thankfully, this approach has failed to pass muster with the federal court that could step in to order early release of prisoners unless more productive solutions are found to further alleviate overcrowding.
"I think the climate [for reform] has opened up," says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy organization. "The issue is less emotional and politicized right now. "
Part of the reason for the slight climate shift has to do with the fact that taxpayers are growing increasingly tired of throwing money into fiscal sinkhole of multibillion-dollar corrections budgets. (California's corrections budget is a whopping $8.75 billion, yet two-thirds of prisoners still end up back in prison.) And then there is the fact that adult and juvenile violent crime rates have, until recently, been on an overall decline since 1993, and the hysteria generated by the crack cocaine epidemic has finally died down to a dull ebb.
As the public has slowly gained an understanding of serious drug abuse as a health and addiction issue, millions of American voters have signaled their own dissatisfaction with the one-size-fits-all-punishment model, voting for treatment diversion programs in a number of states, including the highly successful Proposition 36 in California.
Civil rights/liberties organizations ranging from the ACLU to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (the organization was instrumental in reversing convictions resulting from the Tulia, Texas, drug round-ups of primarily black citizens based on the uncorroborated accusations of one police officer), have made it clear that the grossly disproportionate incarceration of people of color and poor people should be an urgent, front-burner issue for the country as a whole.
In December, 2006, the subject of what it might take to dismantle the American carceral system brought some 500 attendees to New York City. The conference, "Punishment: The U.S. Record," was organized by The New School for Social Research. The event brought together the likes of renowned Princeton sociologist Bruce Western, US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner and Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, in a unified call for radical, systemic change in the criminal justice system.
From Judge Gertner's perspective, this change necessitates a "re-education" of the judiciary, reclaiming their independence in a criminal justice system that has favored strict guidelines over judicial discretion -- especially in drug cases -- since the passage of the Reagan-era Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, the law that established the 100-to-one crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.
With a new Democratic majority in Congress, a number of pending bills do seek to right some of the legislative wrongs of the past. Democratic Representative Charles Rangel has introduced HR 2456, the Crack -Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act, introduced in 2005 and still in committee, which would equalize the drug-quantity ratio and eliminate the mandatory minimum for simple possession. Even some conservatives have moved forward on criminal justice reform. Republican Senator Jeff Sessions's S 3725, the Drug Sentencing Reform Act, introduced in 2006, would reduce the drug quantity ratio to a twenty-to-one disparity and mandatory sentence for simple possession to one year.
Marie Gottschalk, author of The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America , cautioned progressives to remember that most political leaders have been slow to enact any significant reforms for fear of seeming weak on public safety issues. In some cases, she said, some of the most regressive legislation and leaps in incarceration numbers have actually occurred under Democratic stewardship, as was the case under former California Governor Gray Davis (with his unapologetically strong allegiance to the state's prison guard union, CCPOA) and President Clinton's signing of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely limited legal recourse for prisoners to appeal and their ability to plead for relief for abuses suffered while incarcerated.
While many people working in corrections take their jobs seriously, abusive or negligent behavior is a fact of prison life, as are sexual exploitation and violence, the use of restraint chairs, and chemical and electric weapons. Racism and race-based housing has contributed to major prison riots; extended use of supermax-style isolation cells; and shoddy and/or life-threatening medical care are all common problems. Add to this the fact that more than half of all prison and jail inmates report struggling with mild to severe mental-health problems, whose periods of incarceration only tend to exacerbate pre-existing problems.
Back at FCI Coleman in Central Florida, the relief that accompanied Guanipa's move to a halfway house last month -- and her eventual release to the "free world" six months from now -- is tempered by the knowledge of those she's leaving behind to face the day-to-day struggles of prison life.
"The hardships we endure here will be part of our lives when we are released," she says.
Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times. Her work appears in the anthology, "Prison Nation" (Routledge, 2003).