The Negative Impact of Mass Incarceration on Human Rights in the United States

Mass incarceration is a uniquely American problem that impacts the human rights of American citizens, particularly those who come from communities of color. Beginning with the introduction of more punitive approaches to dealing with crime in the 1970’s, America’s prison population has grown at an unprecedented rate. Prisoners in the United States are denied basic human dignity on a daily basis, and the rising costs of providing for a massive prison population has highlighted racial disparities, driven money away from valuable social spending, and is completely unsustainable for the 21st century.

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SOURCE : Unsplash

The History and Development of Mass Incarceration

While the incarceration rates in the United States remained relatively stable in the United States until about the mid-1970s, they began to increase at an almost exponential rate with the introduction of “tough on crime” language by local and national politicians across the nation. Despite crime rates falling drastically since the early 1990s, this trend has continued into the 21st century and incarceration rates in America remain at historic highs, with continued growth for nearly four decades . According to research done by the Sentencing Project, “the combined prison and jail population of about 330,000 in 1972 has mushroomed to 2.2 million today”. The beginning of the movement to end this unprecedented rate of mass incarceration can be, in many ways, traced back to the financial crisis of 2008, where it was recognized by many politicians that the current fiscal costs of America’s prison system were unsustainable. While the modern push to end mass incarceration is a more recent development, measures to keep low-level offenders out of prison have existed in the United States since the nineteenth century, when the probation system began to focus on reform rather than punishment. Although reform has always been a stated goal of prison systems in the United States, the adoption of many “tough on crime” measures in the latter half of the 20th century, particularly mandatory sentencing and three strikes laws, have forced judges to mandate harsher sentences for crimes.

Racial Disparities in Mass Incarceration

The current rate of mass incarceration in the United States is 5.6 times higher for Black people and 2.6 times higher for Hispanic people when compared to the incarceration rate of whites in the United States. While Congress never officially declared a “War on Crime”, the language of war has been used to terrorize neighborhoods, most frequently neighborhoods of color, leading to many calling the current attitude of criminal justice in the United States a “New Jim Crow”. As communities of color in the United States continue to face systemic racism, one of the most glaring ways inequity comes to mind is the incarceration rates of people of color. According to research done on the history of incarcerations, for Black people in particular, the “tough on crime” initiatives adopted in the 1970s only led to an “exponential increase” in the rate of Black people being given prison time. This is a glaring failure of the American criminal justice system in addressing racial inequality, and has only harmed Black communities as the longer prison sentences given today dramatically reduce the human capital available in Black communities.

Mass Incarceration’s Drain on Social Spending

Mass incarceration continues to have a large impact on criminal reform and reentry programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism rates at a far greater effect than prison alone. With the increase of longer prison sentences being handed out, often due to mandatory sentencing laws, the American prison population is much older than it has ever been. Not only does an older prison population cost much more in healthcare spending as healthcare problems are heightened by both age and time spent in prison, but many of these prisoners have “aged out” of their high-crime years and are statistically unlikely to reoffend. Between 1993 and 2013 alone, the fifty-five and older prison population in state prisons increased by “four hundred percent”. This enormous increase in costs over the last half century has directly impacted public safety in a negative way by taking funding away from effective reform programs and prison alternatives such as drug treatment programs, public schooling, and community policing.

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Promising reforms, such as the Biden administration’s decision to end private prison contracts, have brought hope to activists interested in prison reform. SOURCE : Pexels

Promising Reforms

While the problem of mass incarceration has painted an extremely bleak picture of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in America, there have been a few promising reforms by responsible parties that have begun to given those serving time in the United States the human dignity they deserve. For example, an initiative by the Obama administration to reduce time spent for drug charges “lowered the average prison term from twelve years to ten years”. The United States Sentencing Commission’s tight grip on personal choice by judges in individual cases can also be lightened by ending mandatory sentencing standards and three-strikes laws, and reforms made in several states showed almost no increase in recidivism rates despite more prisoners being released. Reform is very slow due to the interest of many politicians to have a continued “tough on crime” stance, despite empirical data showing the failures of these policies to improve public safety and their extremely high burden on the American taxpayers. Despite increasing calls to end mass incarceration in America, the popular talking point of going slow in reform measures has led to millions in prison, with many being denied basic rights every single day, despite posing a low risk to society. Every year, countless thousands of hours of time are stolen from vulnerable communities due to long and inhumane sentencing for even low-level drug charges, decreasing the economic and social productivity in the United States. Though many are privileged enough to never face the American prison system, we all suffer the consequences of mass incarceration in the United States, with no proven results for its effectiveness.

In 2021, the Biden Administration is starting to tackle mass incarceration. One of President Biden’s first executive orders was a welcome reform to the Department of Justice, phasing out the use of private prisons. While activists know much more is needed to be done, it is a refreshing step in the right direction.

 

An Overview of the Insurgency in Cabo Delgado

The country of Mozambique, a nation of 29.5 million in sub-Saharan Africa, is currently facing increasingly alarming violence at the hands of Islamist extremists. The violence has affected countless lives and is coming to the attention of international peace-keeping bodies, with the Human Rights Chief declaring a “desperate” situation in Mozambique as calls for intervention by Mozambique’s government grow by the day.

Cabo Delgado is located in Northeastern Mozambique, shown here. SOURCE : Wikimedia Commons

Background

Beginning in 2017, Islamic groups intent on establishing an Islamic State in Southern Africa have terrorized the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique. The population of Mozambique is extremely young, with about 45% of citizens being under fifteen years of age, and a median age of just seventeen. As Islamic groups began to move into the region, many exploited the high rate of poverty to recruit young people to their cause. These militant groups have brought destruction to Mozambique, killing an estimated 2,000 people in three short years and causing a refugee crisis as over 430,000 have been forced to flee their homes and begin their life again, only adding to massive rates of poverty present in the region currently.

Increasing Horror

The violence of the current insurgency in Cabo Delgado has reached new heights of horror in 2020. In April, it was reported that over 50 young people were murdered by insurgent groups for refusing to join their cause. Beginning on October 31, insurgents beheaded dozens in a series of attacks on the Muidumbe District. Survivors who returned reported dead bodies and buildings that burned for several days, completely uprooting the lives of many who called the Muidumbe District home. While the increasingly more violent attacks have drawn attention from international bodies, including the president of Zimbabwe, the situation continues unfold as more lives are stolen.

The violence even has grown to the neighboring country of Tanzania, where 175 houses were burned down in an attack on the border village of Ktaya. The violence in Tanzania can be traced back to earlier in October, when more than 20 were beheaded in another attack on Ktaya. The expansion of attacks into Tanzania led to a more coordinated effort by Tanzania to become involved in containing the insurgency.

Despite mobilization efforts by Mozambique’s government, backed by a coalition consisting of South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Russia, the ISIS-backed insurgency groups continue to lay siege to Cabo Delgado, with many fearing an all-out civil war breaking out in the region.

The current insurgency in Cabo Delgado has caused hundreds of thousands to seek refugee status, with many travelling by boat. SOURCE : Wikimedia Commons

Potential Motives

While the insurgents in Mozambique claim their ultimate goal is establishing an Islamic State in Southern Africa, it should be noted that region is also home to $60 billion in natural gas developments. Many of the recruits of these terrorist groups are also promised a better life, a message that preys on the impoverished youth of the nation and the region.

Theocratic states are also inherently incompatible with the promises of the modern human rights movement. Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear in its promise of freedom of religion:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The methods of these insurgent groups use to establish power are also extremely problematic, leading directly to loss of life, destruction of property, loss of cultural identity, and violent intimidation that denies the people of Cabo Delgado their basic human rights on a daily basis.

The attacks have also led to the abandonment of many promising economic opportunities that Mozambique’s central government hoped would lead to poverty reduction in Cabo Delgado, which has lagged behind the rest of Mozambique in terms of economic development and poverty reduction. Norwegian fertilizer company Yara pulled out of a contract with the Mozambiquan government to make fertilizer from Cabo Delgado natural gas, mainly out of fear that the insurgency would lead to an inability for Mozambique to provide the gas at a stable cost. The region’s poverty rate has not been improved by the insurgent groups despite their promise to thousands of youths who joined a cause for increased economic mobility. Instead, the insurgency in Cabo Delgado has only led to senseless violence, destruction, and worsened Mozambique’s position to grow into a healthy economy in the 21st century.

A Promising Future?

The calls for international intervention in Mozambique have begun to grow as the violence increases daily. As well as the President of Zimbabwe and the United Nations Human Rights Chief, both the British Foreign Secretary and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed a heightened level of concern for the situation after news of the October 31 beheadings began to spread worldwide.

During an October visit to Cabo Delgado by Filipe Nyusi, current president of Mozambique, a man in the audience put in quite plainly in his urge to the president, saying “We want the war to stop.”

There have been signs that perhaps the insurgent groups are beginning to lose the war of attrition occurring in Cabo Delgado. On November 19, The Muidumbe District, which had been occupied by the insurgent groups, was retaken by over 1,000 Mozambiquan troops, killing 16 militants in the process.

Positive developments in Cabo Delgado can continue to occur if Mozambique’s central government is provided the adequate support and resources from international peacekeeping organizations like the United Nations. A statement by the Organization for World Peace critiqued the practice of simply condemning violence and called for more direct international support, saying:

“Though the UN’s condemnations of violence and appeals for humanitarian and investigative action are significant, the organization must carry out this action itself while motivating states and international courts to follow suit. The UN must also provide necessary assistance to Mozambican security forces while ensuring that this assistance is not abused to propagate more violence. This collective action will harness all the investigative legitimacy and humanitarian resources of the international community to uproot the militants and secure long-lasting peace.”

The citizens of Cabo Delgado deserve peace after years of violence. The region has enormous untapped potential for economic and cultural growth that has been stifled by the ongoing insurgency. No human being should have their life or home stolen by violence.

The Most Disrespected: What does no Justice for Breonna Taylor say about the Treatment of Black Women in America?

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Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, became a worldwide movement in the late spring of 2020. Here is an image captured of a protest in Amsterdam. (SOURCE: Creative Commons)

On May 22, 1962, Civil Rights Leader Malcom X spoke in front of a crowd of Black Americans in Los Angeles. Malcolm X was a fiery and passionate orator, and his words have become an inspiration for a new generation of social justice advocates and human rights workers (Yahoo!). On that fateful day, Malcolm X said something that I believe is more poignant now than ever before.

The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.

        The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman.

              The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

Breonna Taylor was a twenty-six-year-old EMT from Louisville, Kentucky. In March of 2020, three officers from the Louisville Police Department botched a raid on her apartment. After Taylor’s boyfriend responded to the no-knock warrant with a defensive shot, the officers shot more than thirty rounds into the unit, killing Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her bed (The New Yorker). Protests broke out across the nation over the spring and summer following the death of Breonna Taylor. The pressure from the nationwide protests did lead to the adoption of Breonna’s Law by the Louisville Metro Council, outlawing the use of no-knock warrants (Stanford Law School). For many protestors, this was one step forward in achieving the types of reform that would help prevent senseless violence from occurring in police-citizen interactions. The protestors held their breath across the nation as Kentucky’s attorney general Daniel Cameron delivered the verdict on a grand jury’s indictment of the three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.

September 23, 2020: An Outpouring of Anger and Grief

On Wednesday, September 23, 2020, Attorney General Daniel Cameron delivered the decision of the grand jury. No indictments would be made specifically related to Breonna Taylor’s death. Officer Brett Hankison of the Louisville Police Department was indicted for “wanton endangerment” because of his firing his weapon without any clear target, leading to reckless damage to neighboring apartments in the complex (New York Times). Just minutes after the indictment was read, the news became the number one trend on Twitter. Protestors and activists grieved that justice was never served for the death of a young medical worker. Protests broke out across the nation once again. Celebrities and politicians shared their outrage for how the case was handled by the grand jury and the attorney general. A viral image of a protest sign that read “A cop shot a Black woman and was only charged for the shots missed” was shared by international pop star Rihanna, and the post has garnered over 400,000 likes (Twitter).

Black Women Deserve Dignity

As a junior in college studying anthropology and political science, I was deeply disturbed by the senseless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of unnecessary police violence, and spent a large part of my summer protesting with and researching the Black Lives Matter movement. At the very core of the movement is an idea that I have found to also be the core of human rights work and advocacy – the concept of human dignity. According to The Center of Bioethics and Human Dignity, human dignity can be defined as “the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings” (CBHD). This concept has been extremely influential in shaping the human rights movement and the way our current political and justice systems work in theory. The concept of human dignity was used by Enlightenment thinkers to quantify the idea of “inalienable rights”, an idea that was essential to the foundation of the United States.

All human beings inherently deserve dignity. This is the basis for our legal systems, our ideas about morality, and the way we conduct ourselves day to day. For the vibrant activist community in the United States, it’s clear that Breonna was deprived of her dignity, and is one of many Black women who face institutional violence day to day.

Even activists had trouble keeping the news of Breonna Taylor from turning into entertainment. According to Mashable, Breonna Taylor’s death had much of its significance taken away as social media users on Twitter “repeated the phrase in hopes of spreading awareness and gaining visibility”, but ultimately “Taylor’s death became an insensitive meme” as “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” turned into a way for content creators to gain relevance and attention, similarly to “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” was a buzz phrase earlier in the year (Mashable). This type of faux-activism did nothing to bring Breonna Taylor justice, and instead reminded countless black activists of the violence people of color face in America on a day to day basis. Twitter user @daniellecanyell said it perhaps better than anyone else, writing on June 23 that “breonna taylor’s death being commodified into a meme is really enough to tell me that y’all do not actually value the personhood of black women” (Mashable). The commercialization of the suffering of Black women and people of color in general is a clear symptom of the denial of human dignity that Black women face.

 

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Women of color have led and organized many of the thousands of protests that have taken place world wide. Shown here are a group of women protesting for Black Lives Matter. (SOURCE : Creative Commons)

Where Do We Go from Here?

For Breonna Taylor, the truth may still come out. On September 28, 2020, news broke that an anonymous member of the grand jury involved in Breonna Taylor’s case was suing for the release of the secret footage of the proceedings, and Kentucky’s attorney general agreed (AL.com). Uncovering the truth about this case will not bring Breonna Taylor back, but it may provide healing for her family and allow her to rest in more dignity and peace than she was given alive.

For many activists nationwide, the grand jury’s decision reignited passion in fighting the systemic injustice Black people face in America. The response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others was labelled by the Harvard Carr Center as perhaps “the largest movement in US history” (Harvard). Research done by the Crowd Sourcing Consortium revealed in July that anywhere from fifteen million and twenty-six million Americans have participated in protests nationwide (Harvard). This number has absolutely increased in the months that have followed, as protests picked up again after the grand jury’s decision was read on September 23. The Black Lives Matter movement is a movement that will define Generation Z, and it’s push for positive reforms in our institutions will be heard, even if it is a long and uphill battle.

Rest in power, Breonna.