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KOMARAGIRI: United States’ mass incarceration system fails prisoners

Column: Bleeding Heart

I do not believe I can be free as long as there are those who are not. 

Locking people up and depriving them of their freedom is not only unnatural, but also completely antithetical to the values this nation claims to its name. But somehow the United States is very good at it.

If the state with the lowest incarceration rate, Massachusetts, was its own country, it would rank ninth in the world for incarceration. Even after adjusting for variables such as victimization rates and economic development, the United States is unquestionably miles ahead of the rest of the world in incarcerating individuals. 

This is nothing short of an immediate moral crisis, and one that receives inadequate attention. 

Prisoners suffer from a wide variety of issues including, but not limited to: lack of adequate healthcare, violence and the torture that is solitary confinement. Currently, enormous political capital is spent on reducing mass incarceration through reform. 

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) outline policy priorities based on improving existing prison conditions and offering rehabilitative services through prison education or drug treatment, particularly along with tolerant sentencing for nonviolent offenders, typically discussed as first-time non-violent drug offenders. 

While these are laudable positions and do offer some respite to the countless inmates struggling with obscene treatment, they ignore the crux of the issue. A great deal of prison population growth is violent offenders and making prison more palatable or “cozy” does nothing to reduce prison populations or bring people more freedom. 

If we are serious about reducing the numbers of our incarcerated populations, we have to acknowledge that as a society, we must be more sympathetic towards all criminals. 

Stakeholders in the prison system have no incentive to improve conditions. Private prisons and district attorneys motivated by their criminal case records are not amenable to reducing the intake of prisoners or making conditions more tolerable, as they are at risk of losing profits or looking soft. 

Prisoners, no matter how egregious their crimes are, deserve humane treatment and will see none through marginal improvements. Prisons must be abolished. 

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in prisons, or read the most basic statistics, can see that this criminal justice issue is inextricable from race. Right here in New Jersey, even though Black and white youth commit most crimes at similar rates, a Black kid is 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white kid. Nationally, Black are five times more likely to see the inside of a prison. 

It is no wonder that our mass incarceration crisis today has been characterized as “the new Jim Crow," and prison labor the moral equivalent of slavery. These comparisons may seem unconvincing, except when considering that today we have Louisiana’s majority-Black prison population picking cotton, and inmates in California performing the life-threatening work of fighting fires for $1 an hour — a profession for which they would have little practical hiring chance upon release. 

The trauma doled out by prisons is clearly stacked against racial minorities and the poor, yet they represent the cornerstone of United States judicial thought. 

While this moral argument for doing away with prisons should be compelling on its own, there is a pragmatic basis for their elimination. They simply do not work. Within three years, approximately 70% of released U.S. prisoners re-offend and are placed back into the system. 

“Relapse into criminal behavior” succeeds in spite of punitive justice and leads to cyclical breakdowns of the most vulnerable communities, namely people of color and the poor. For a country that spends around $80 billion per year locking people up, I would expect to see a better return on investment.

The incalculable suffering of prisoners is for nothing and the system is failing us, but there are alternatives. Procedures such as mental illness clinics, drug courts and restorative justice — a process by which offenders engage with the community to be held accountable for their actions while determining to right the wrong — all offer an alternative route to incarceration. Studies show that certain restorative programs lead to fewer recidivists with three-year rates almost halved, hovering around 35%

Truthfully, I do not believe that when tomorrow comes we can shut down every prison and reap the rewards. I empathize with the victims of crime and I understand that there needs to be some way to rehabilitate individuals who may commit them. 

What I take issue with is the durability of prisons in our national penal discourse. It seems that one cannot even envision a world where we do not have to let our people rot in a cell. 

If we are never able to set this goal or acknowledge that such a world is possible, we have already lost. 

Veenay Komaragiri is a Rutgers Business School and School of Arts  and Sciences senior majoring in business analytics and information  technology. His column, “Bleeding Heart,” typically runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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