June 24, 2019 | 72° F

ABBASI: Prison reform demands student attention, action

Opinions Column: Midweek Crisis


The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is well-known for hosting its annual spooky Halloween tours for the past 25 years, boasting a “massive haunted house in a real prison.” The Terror Behind the Walls tour promises to be a terrifying experience for thrill-seekers, complete with tall tales of resident ghosts and re-enactments of the tortured souls that supposedly haunt the cellblocks. But lesser known is the penitentiary’s historical significance and the impact it had on the present and future of incarceration in America.

In the 18th century, most prisons were simply large holding pens — men, women and children convicted of every crime from murder to petty theft were all locked up together. Abuse and violence were common occurrences, both from prison guards and between the detainees. Founded in 1787, the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (now known as the Pennsylvania Prison Society) spent more than 30 years convincing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to construct a radical re-imagination of a prison, until in 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary was built.

This building was considered revolutionary at the time: It housed inmates in individual cell blocks, centered around the idea that solitary confinement as a means of rehabilitation was more beneficial for inmates and for society than strictly punitive measures. This Quaker-inspired system was meant to inspire spiritual reflection and change, rather than inflict punishment. Cellblocks for each inmate were each 8 by 10 feet — a relatively generous size compared to today’s average of 6 by 9 feet for two inmates — with plumbing, central heating and individual exercise yards.

This is not to say that inmates at the Eastern State Penitentiary lived in any semblance of relative comfort — the strict system of solitary confinement was criticized as so harsh and inhumane that the prison was shut down in 1971 — but rather to illustrate an early instance of prison reform in America. As convictions of crime increased, the demand for more cellblocks eventually outgrew the original structure of the penitentiary and newer wings of the prison were scaled down in size and functionality in favor of a more efficient system that allowed a larger number of inmates as well as continued control and surveillance. The Philadelphia Society was committed to prison reform, and created the structure of the Eastern State Penitentiary as a much-needed alternative to the pre-existing forms of uncontrolled punishment. But today, we are seeing our system of mass incarceration spiraling out of control with little being done to seriously address it.

In "The New Jim Crow," Michelle Alexander methodically describes the emergence of the American penal system as a new means of social control that is largely defined by race and class. The United States has about 4 percent of the world’s total population, but houses about 22 percent of the world’s incarcerated, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. Such high rates are not just simply of increased crime — and there is plenty of research to debunk those correlations — but because of the unique roles of race and profitability in America that have made its prison populations higher than those of every other country in the world. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and at the current rate approximately one in three African American men can expect to serve jail time at some point in their lives. The social and economic impact of incarceration on family members is immeasurable, not to mention its disproportionate effects on women, juveniles and members of the Latino community. Even more disturbingly ex-convicts are relegated to an emerging group of second-class citizens whose rights to civic participation have been stripped completely away from them. They lose the right to vote, protection from all forms of discrimination including housing and employment and a range of other basic constitutional rights for the rest of their lives, feeding right back into a continuously vicious cycle of disenfranchisement.

Our criminal justice system, as it stands, has many complex and multifaceted issues. Every aspect of the process, from policing and prosecution to trials and sentencing, requires major re-evaluation and reform, none of which are mutually exclusive and none of which will singlehandedly lead to significant improvements. What is urgent and necessary to address the crisis of mass incarceration is the kind of revolutionary proposal introduced by the Philadelphia Society centuries ago. Alexander cites a 1973 recommendation from the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice: That “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed … the prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.”

And yet, prison abolitionists and reform activists today are not being taken seriously. But prison reform is starting to gain more traction around the country. The most important actions being taken right now are to pressure institutions to divest from companies that profit from the prison industrial complex. Last year, Columbia University became the first to divest from prisons following an intense student-led campaign. Educational campaigns, sit-ins, opinions pieces, teach-ins and a variety of direct action tactics by students and faculty are what it takes for this kind of meaningful change. As students at a university institution as large as Rutgers, we have a moral obligation to know where our money is going. The newly formed Paul Robeson Prison Divest Committee is a coalition of students, faculty, and community members from all three Rutgers campuses who are determined to do just that. As Rutgers carries on celebrating its 250-year history, keep in mind that such student-led initiatives are the reason our university is and can continue to be revolutionary. You can also mail ark922@gmail.com to join the mailing list and keep yourself updated on the committee's progress.

Sabah Abbasi is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and public health. She is the former Opinions Editor of The Daily Targum. Her column, “Midweek Crisis,” runs on alternate Wednesdays. She can be contacted at sabah.abbasi@rutgers.edu.

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Sabah Abbasi

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