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.

Gives a visual of Prisons
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.

 

Offender Alumni Association: Protecting and Empowering Previously Incarcerated People

by Mariana Orozco, UAB student

During the Fall 2019 Semester at UAB, Dena Dickerson, the program Director at the Offender Alumni Association, and one of her mentees visited Beth Shelburne’s honors seminar. During their visit, they shared testimonials with students, talked about an organization that they are part of, and closed the session with the man singing to the students. This was a a very emotional class, leaving many students with tears. Furthermore, many of these students were also moved to advocate for those who are in prison or who have been released. Dena, being the program director, has contacted students who have volunteered with the Offender Alumni Association (OAA) and spread the word about it on campus. A couple of students sold Pura Vida bracelets to their peers and were able to raise $150. 

Photo of Dena Dickerson and students in class
Dena Dickerson speaks to students at UAB. Source: the author.

Background

OAA is an organization that helps those who have been previously incarcerated. Since its founding date, in 2014, they have impacted over 500 former offenders and their family members. They have been officially named a 501(c)3 nonprofit and launched several support forums in some of Alabama’s and Georgia’s major prisons. The main goals of this organization are to reduce recidivism rates, develop healthy relationships within communities, and provide opportunities for social, economic, and civic empowerment for people coming out of prison.  

The Effect of OAA for People

Similarly to the commonly known Alcoholics Anonymous program, OAA offers peer to peer support to help those who are seeking encouragement and support once they are released from prison. An organization like OAA is significant in providing help to people who have been in the same situation as those seeking it. OAA allows a place of honesty without any judgement. Not only are formerly incarcerated people benefiting from this, but OAA is also a place for their families to get resources and network with others who understand their situation. Many times, the focus of the people affected by the prison system is only on those who are incarcerated. However, there are many cases where the most affected is the family. OAA provides a space for these conversations and relationships to occur. 

The Effect of OAA in the Community 

Mass incarceration is everybody’s issue. Tax payers have to pay and communities have to suffer. As 2020 has brought attention to many people, there are many problems within the prison system. Alabama prisons are overpopulated, understaffed, and underfunded. The 2019 Department of Justice report described Alabama Prisons for Men as unconstitutional because of the guards’ abuse of the people in prison. OAA’s goal is to help reduce the number of people in prison through reducing recidivism rates. Through education and mentorship, they work towards reducing recidivism rates.  Although this does not necessarily mean the environment inside prisons will suddenly be good, it would create more living space and reduce the number of people being negatively affected by the system. OAA bridges the gap between “them” and “us” to help bring everyone together and treat people as human beings. 

An image of two young boys getting haircuts in a barber shop
OAA takes students from “Heroes in the Hood” to get haircuts. Source: the author

Future Programs

In efforts to further decrease the number of people in prison, OAA is opening a Youth Program. “Heroes in the Hood” took off in the middle of this pandemic. Currently, there are eight students, ages 14 to 18, who are mentored about work ethic and community pride. Dr. Stacy Moak, a Social Work professor at  UAB endorsed this program, saying that-“mentoring programs have shown promise in improving the opportunities for these youths to see new possibilities, complete high school, become job ready, and become productive members of society.” This Youth Program hopes to help good students who have been in jail because they do not have resources to help them be successful. 

How You Can Help 

In order for the new Youth Program to be successful, OAA is working on raising money. This money will be used to provide the students with computers and other school supplies. There are also plans on having engaging events with the student’s mentors to build trust with each other. They are selling OAA colors Pura Vida bracelets for $6. Any other donations can be done through their website. You can also help by educating those around you, sharing this article, or volunteering with this organization. 

Photo of Pura Vida bracelets
Green, white, and yellow PuraVida bracelets for the Offender Alumni Association. Source: OAA