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BOZTEPE: Prison system in U.S. needs serious change

The American prison system is analogous to what happens when a teenager says they will clean their room when really, they are just stuffing their closet and hoping nothing falls out. It is an utter mess that is continuing to pile up with no end solution in thought. There are currently more than 2.2 million people that are currently in U.S. jails or prisons, the highest prison population in the entire world, and according to the Prison Policy Initiative/U.S Census Bureau, the population of those in prison and jail would result in the fourth largest city in America. That statistic leaves out those who are under correctional control, probation or parole meaning that the number could realistically be millions more. There are more jails than colleges in the U.S., which are paid for by the taxpayer, so today I would like to discuss just how severely populated the prisons are, as well as what this means for the average citizen and what steps need to be taken to fix this.

The prison population has increased by approximately 400 percent since former President Jimmy Carter's term. This is partially due to former President Richard Nixon's "war on drugs," which was a campaign that created stricter drug laws and heavier sentences for those caught with drugs. To put this into context, according to the American Civil Liberties Union’s 2013 report, “A Living Death," a whopping 3,278 prisoners have been given life sentences for nonviolent crimes such as selling $10 worth of marijuana, and approximately 65 percent of those people were Black and many had mental health issues. Ever since the "war on drugs," the rise in prison population has been directly correlated to the early 1980s, when the mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drugs came into effect. The current federal law requires the mandatory minimum sentence for a first-time non-violent drug offense to be at least five years, and that can rise under certain circumstances. 

The U.S. has the largest incarceration system in the world. Just how much each citizen pays to keep the jails intact and running depends on the population of the state and county and their taxes. But, in simple math terms, more inmates equals higher costs. Each county that has prisons can also have staff that is paid a higher salary, and in turn the citizens must pay more. Each inmate is given free time, three meals a day, electricity and running bathrooms, which cost a good deal of money to fund. It approximately costs $33,000 a year per inmate nationally — money which could be used for a multitude of rehabilitation courses and works rather than keeping those behind bars imprisoned. Jay Yeager, the Anderson County Law director from a correctional institution in Knoxville, Tennessee stated, “Our taxpayers pay $62 a day to house one inmate." That amount times a full year comes to $22,630 a year for a small prison in northwest Knoxville. Incarceration costs taxpayers approximately $70 billion annually, and I believe that money could be used to help minimize the volume of prisons and we can utilize tax revenue to help with long term rehabilitation programs and revamping the U.S. prison system. 

While I do believe that there is a shift away from wanting to make prisons less crowded and change a few policies, I do not believe that the U.S. has the proper philosophy regarding why people are sent to jail, especially when smaller crimes are involved. The U.S. focuses on punishment, while many Nordic countries, such as Sweden, focus on rehabilitation. Each person that is put into jail in the U.S. is just another expense on the taxpayer, whereas in Sweden, a country that has much lower incarceration and crime rates, focuses on fixing the person put into jail and helping them come back into society. In 2014, the director-general of Sweden’s prison system, Nils Öberg, said, “Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: they have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us." The goal must be for most of the people sent to jail to be rehabilitated in the hopes of getting them back into society in a better shape than which they came in — although some people do deserve to stay imprisoned for a long time, or for life. This has been proven to work in many Nordic countries, not just Sweden, and I believe that the U.S. must consider this as an alternative model of how to treat prisoners. To summarize — if you tell somebody they cannot get better and will never make it in life even if they leave prison, they will not. But if you tell somebody they can and help lay out a way that they can truly achieve success and amend their mistakes, well they just might have a chance. 

Kaan Jon Boztepe is a School of Arts and Sciences junior double majoring in philosophy and history. His column, "Kaanotations," runs on alternate Wednesdays. 


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