Eugenics: How the Remnants of a Bygone Theory Threaten Personal Liberty Over a Century Later

by Sumaira Quraishi 

Trigger warnings: rape, invasive medical procedures, and medical malpractice.

Often, the Supreme Court of the United States is seen as a paragon of the American legal system and the national values it strives to uphold. At least, it used to be. While trust in the sanctity of the Supreme Court has recently been broken over controversial political issues, the Supreme Court is no stranger to making unfavorable and borderline unconstitutional rulings in cases brought before the justices at the time. While this is to be expected, with the court switching from conservative to liberal-dominant every so often, some cases seem to concern unalienable human rights that have been denied by the court, as expected of a supposed higher authority that is ultimately, and always will be, a product of its time. In 1927, Carrie Buck learned just how fallible the highest court in the American legal system could be when infiltrated with an ideology eventually perpetuated by the Nazi party during World War I. 

Image shows Jewish prisoners in their barracks at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.
Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Birth of Eugenics

Surprisingly, and perhaps horrifyingly, eugenics was not the child of oppressive or violent regimes, but the culmination of centuries of scientific research and racism woven together and spread through communities worldwide during the early 20th century. Eugenics was a theory created to exterminate certain people who were not considered mentally fit, genetically clean, or conventionally attractive. The ones who decided the people that fit into these categories usually were ones in positions of power or influence in society: doctors, politicians, and scientists. Favored methods for perpetuating eugenics were forced sterilization, societal segregation, and social exclusion, all of which seem to be methods straight out of the time of slavery where eugenicists drew inspiration and justification for eugenics. 

In the modern age, there is a laser-like focus on women’s rights to not have a child, and while this pursuit of maintaining women’s rights is justified, for many vulnerable men and women today the fight for the right to have a child is just as in need of attention. An old theory about the superiority of white, able-bodied people may seem like one to be thrown into the history books and mentioned alongside other conventionally shunned snippets of history in the modern discourse, however, eugenics never truly went away. 

Eugenics Still Lingers

Overshadowing lives today as a phantom of the eugenics school of thought, a forgotten Supreme Court case in 1927 named Buck v. Bell led to the codification of sterilizing those deemed “feeble-minded” and genetically inferior by people in positions of power into law. Carrie Buck was a woman who resided in a mental institution and became pregnant after being raped, resulting in staff at the asylum taking acute notice of Buck. Doctors and directors at the asylum were firmly entrenched in the eugenics culture sweeping across America and firmly believed Buck should not be allowed to carry to term. These men took the stand that Buck should be forcibly sterilized to prevent her genes from being passed on, and the Supreme Court was in full agreement, with the justification for the ruling against Buck being that she had a history of mental illness back to one of her grandmothers and being sterilized would protect the goodness of society by keeping “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous” people from reproducing. 

Image shows the Supreme Court building from the front.
The Supreme Court Building. Source: Yahoo Images.

Not only is Buck v. Bell an appalling ruling that trod on the constitutional rights of Buck, but it also opened the door for forced sterilization procedures to continue without secrecy and, chillingly, has never been overturned. An old legal case from the 1920s may seem like something to be stored away in textbooks and forgotten, yet, eugenics practices in the form of forced sterilizations are happening today

In California between 2006 and 2010, almost 150 women in two different prisons were given hysterectomies without their consent or legal documentation authorized by the state, with 100 suspected cases of sterilization dating back to 1997 uncovered as well. Furthermore, in 2017 a Tennessee judge offered to reduce prison sentences by 30 days for any inmate who signed up to receive a birth control implant or a vasectomy. The latest case of eugenics rearing its head in American practices was in 2020 when it was revealed that hysterectomies were being performed illegally on women in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. These cases are not the only ones concerning the continued use of forced sterilizations to prevent incarcerated or institutionalized individuals from having the right to choose to have a child, with many more subject to the archaic practice who have yet to have their story told. These practices are considered morally reprehensible by the general public but can trace their roots to eugenic procedures approved by the Supreme Court in a case that was challenged but never overturned, and some laws approving the use of sterilizations are still in existence in states such as Virginia. 

Image shows an empty cell area of a prison.
Prison. Source: Yahoo Images.

What Can Be Done

Fighting a system that has failed a large portion of the American population, and pushing for a Supreme Court ruling to be overturned when the nation’s political climate seems fit to burst with elections on the horizon can seem incredibly intimidating. These thoughts are not unfounded, but what government bodies forget is that their power comes from their people and constituents. Harmful practices can be challenged with public favor and fervor. Staying informed on what influences modern atrocities like Buck v. Bell and knowing that the majority of the population supports upholding the 14th Amendment protecting civil liberties keeps people motivated to improve the lives of their fellow Americans. Leaving Buck v. Bell as a precedent in U.S. law allows for unprotected groups of individuals who are incarcerated or institutionalized to be at heightened risk of human rights abuse, and while forced sterilization is morally reprehensible, the law does not currently outline sterilization as illegal since the Supreme Court ruling remains standing. Reaching out to local or state politicians is an option for those who want to appeal hurtful laws, and a less intimidating option is to join advocacy groups whose views align with your own. 

For more information on another situation involving eugenic practices ruining the lives of nonincarcerated individuals, the case of a fertility doctor who artificially inseminated dozens of his clients with his sperm and remains free from jail can be found here.

Why our criminal justice system is working so well

 

Source: Yahoo Image, KQED

The justice system is working perfectly. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. 

The withholding of information by prosecutors violating the Brady Rule, the failure to investigate other potential suspects, and a lawyer who failed to follow a potential alibi are some ways that the justice system convicted Adnan Syed of the murder of Hae Min Lee. Adnan spent 23 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of the murder of his ex-girlfriend. His sentence was recently vacated, and DNA evidence exonerated him. AFTER MORE THAN TWO DECADES! What went wrong? The jury believed that he was guilty, which means that the jury was convinced that he murdered her. So how come he is now walking free after 23 years? 

First, let’s look at Maryland’s Attorney General Marilyn Mosby and what she had to say. In her press release, she stated that since the prosecutors failed to turn over evidence for two other suspects which could have changed the course of the trial, the Brady Rule was violated. So what is this Brady Rule that keeps coming up? This rule goes back to the case Brady v. Maryland in which the Supreme Court “requires that prosecutors fully disclose to the accused all exculpatory evidence in their possession. There is also the fact that there was a DNA sample that wasn’t tested until very recently. The third and most important thing is that the prosecution’s evidence relied on two things, one being their ‘key witness’ Jay Wilds and the other being the cell phone data that backed up Jay’s confession of helping Adnan bury Hae’s body. While AT&T published a notice – during the trial – that incoming calls are not reliable information to pin a location, the prosecution still used this as evidence, stating that even if the witness lied, the data doesn’t. This is now considered controversial evidence as the data isn’t truly reliable. Other than the cell phone data and Jay’s testimony, the prosecutors had nothing. With all of that presented to Baltimore City Judge Melissa Phinn by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and the Sentencing Review Unit, Judge Phinn granted the motion to vacate the conviction of Adnan Syed. The judge gave the state of Maryland the option of proceeding with a new trial within 30 days of such ruling (the 30 days has since passed and he is now presumed innocent due to the DNA testing that was FINALLY done). 

Source: Yahoo Image, Picryl

All this happened due to the publicity from the hit podcast “Serial” and the help of other criminal justice reforms that happened in Baltimore. After 23 years, Adnan is free. But what about the cases that do not get public attention through a podcast or other publicity for that matter? How many others, just like Adnan, are convicted due to the violation of the Brady rule? Or for simply not investigating other potential suspects? A new study done by the National Registry of Exonerations states that of wrongful convictions in 2020, 54% were due to “misconduct by the government”, 34% due to misconduct by the police, and 30% due to misconduct by prosecutors. According to Georgia’s Innocence Project, 1 out of 20 criminal cases “results in a wrongful conviction”. This goes against the advice of one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin: “it is better a hundred guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer.”

Why are we neglecting this advice? Many lives are being stolen due to wrongful conviction of crimes that are small yet heavily punished or thrown into prison as a result of these shortcuts the Justice system takes. Often these injustice acts are directed towards black and brown individuals where America is the leading prison population due to the country’s way of approaching punishment which “often lacks a public safety rationale, disproportionately affects minorities, and inflicts overly harsh sentences”. America, unlike other countries, uses prison as a “one-size-fits-all solution to crime”, which means America prosecutes people who are not a public safety problem and often punish those people in a harsher and more damaging way than is truly justified. When did this start? Mass incarceration has been a huge problem in America since the civil war, however, we saw a huge rise in the prison population in the 1970s after Nixon’s “war on drugs” campaign which mostly targeted black individuals. This campaign used both fear and “racial rhetoric” in order to further this ‘movement.’ Under Nixon, we saw a rise in the prison population, however, under Reagan, it was an explosion. When Reagan took office “the total prison population was 329,000” and when he left the population was at 627,000 which is double the starting number. To put it more in perspective, according to the Brennan Center in 2003, for every 100,000 residents, 710 would be incarcerated, and according to the Vera report in 2015, 55% of incarcerated people are either black or brown. This all goes back to the loophole in the 13th Amendment “which abolished slavery and indentured servitude except as a punishment for a crime”, which took effect after the civil war and till now. So there is a a root problem, which is why the justice system is not broken in any way. It was created to harshly convict black and brown individuals. Evidence of such is the data collected in 2010 Prison Policy Initiative study which stated that for every 100,000 residents, 2,306 black individuals are incarcerated versus the 450 white individuals incarcerated. 

Now that we established the existence of such issue, what can we so about it? Discussions are taking place and changes too; after the death of George Floyd, many people voiced out their concerns, this pushed “the Center for American Progress, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation” to “virtually [gather] 1,000 advocates, researchers, artists, and practitioners for the Innovations Conference, a multiday exploration of what it means to reimagine public safety and shrink the footprint of the justice system.” There is a problem within the roots of the justice system, hence the need to “work to root out the systemic racism ingrained in the criminal justice system” that has affected people of color. This can be established, by starting with ending unnecessarily harsh punishments; for example, “Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug charges than their white counterparts”. Another approach can be taken, by rooting out any racial inequality within the justice system; for example, California passed multiple bills “that will address discriminatory practices within jury selection, prohibit prosecutors from seeking convictions or sentences on the basis of defendants’ race or ethnicity, and lay the groundwork for reparations for the Black community”, and by removing the barriers that affect individuals with a criminal record as it disqualifies these people from “voting, obtaining business or occupational licenses, accessing employment and housing, receiving public assistance, and participating in other key elements of civic life”. Another way of helping is by investing in programs such as “child care and education, access to affordable housing, and other supportive services” since they are proven to create strong and safe neighborhoods. As individuals, we can help by voting, spreading awareness, and simply by putting these issues on the table for discussion. Barriers are destroyed through discussion. 

A Look at Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

The Exhibit

Girl in front of Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration by Mark Loughney
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014-present. Series of graphite and ink drawings on paper. 725 pieces total. Each 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts  (AEIVA) has welcomed a new exhibit, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. The exhibit explores the United States’ criminal justice system, mass incarceration, discrimination and the very concept of justice with works from more than 70 different artists. Many of the pieces on display come from artists who are or were incarcerated, who used art as an essential outlet and form of expression within prison. Nonincarcerated artists are also featured, influenced by the damages of mass incarceration within their families and neighborhoods. The entire exhibit creates a critique of mass incarceration from a human right’s perspective, representing the voices of incarcerated persons that are typically silenced or ignored. “Marking Time” boasts three galleries of moving pieces that speak to the gravity and scale at which the human rights violations within our punitive justice system disenfranchise impoverished and minority communities throughout the United States, and features data and interviews that discuss ways these glaring problems should be addressed and combatted. 

“Marking Time” was organized by curator Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, who has spent a decade researching the importance and development of visual arts and creative practices for incarcerated persons. Dr. Fleetwood deliberately removed any mention of charges or reasons for conviction for the incarcerated artists featured in the exhibit, forcing viewers to remove a layer of prejudice or thought regarding whether or not the artist is inherently a “good” or “bad” person, or deserving of their incarceration. As I progressed through the galleries of “Marking Time ”, one of the first things I noticed was exactly that; how I continuously perceived the artworks as being the creations of a fellow artist, not a criminal or prisoner. This intentional shift in perception creates an environment of thoughtfulness, analysis and depth that may not have been achieved otherwise, and makes the exhibit an excellent ignition for thought, conversation and activism.

When analyzing the works themselves, I was surprised to see how many were masterfully created from hair gel, sheets, uniforms, newspapers and contraband items when traditional art supplies were not accessible. Incarcerated artists are often limited in the tools they have to create art from, but countless works within “Marking Time” reveal the true resilience of an artist’s spirit, and how artistic expression can prevail above the smothering limitations of prison.

The Pieces 

As this exhibit has been analyzed and discussed through its many travels from MoMA to AEIVA, I wanted to highlight a few of the pieces and discuss their particular significance to the conversation of human rights within the United States punitive justice system and mass incarceration.

Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration by Mark Loughney

Hundreds of sketched portraits decorating a wall.
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014-present. Series of graphite and ink drawings on paper. 725 pieces total. Each 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

 

Loughney’s series, Pyrrhic Defeat, is named for a theory within criminal justice studies that explores how a failing criminal justice system that discriminates in its criminalization of certain groups substantially benefits certain elites. Mark Loughney has created over 750 portraits of his incarcerated peers in order to mark the passage of time within his own sentence, as well as provide fellow inmates with a positive alternative to the dehumanization caused by mugshots and prison IDs. His pieces provide the individuals with a level of personalization, dignity, and respect that is often forgotten and ignored within the prison system. Loughney spends 20 minutes on each sketch, and has to carve a creative, open atmosphere for each session out of the typical chaos and disruptions within a prison environment.

Untitled by Gilberto Rivera

Three mixed media paintings depicting the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gilberto Rivera, Untitled, 2020. Newspaper, caulk, silicone, spray paint, acrylic, and markers on canvas and recycled canvas. L: 48 ½ x 60 in C: 59 ¾ x 51 ⅜ in R: 48 ¼ x 60 in, Overall: 60 x 156 ½ in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

 

This Triptych by Gilberto Rivera places a spotlight on how mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic negatively impacted vulnerable communities throughout the artists’ hometown of New York. Rivera was a graffiti artist prior to his incarceration, and this piece truly reveals the artist’s emotions and style in a brilliant display of keywords, colors and figures. Rivera’s triptych incorporates newspaper clippings that highlight his disgust for how minority and immigrant essential workers were neglected as well as the fear incarcerated people experienced throughout the public health crisis. Prisoners across the globe were put into lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and the result of this is an experience extremely similar to that of solitary confinement; a punitive mechanism proven to have extreme mental and physical health consequences. Despite these sweeping lockdowns, extreme overcrowding lead prisons to host the majority of the largest single-site outbreaks since the start of the pandemic. Despite these major outbreaks and casualties, prisoners fell to the bottom of priority lists for treatment and aid when medical equipment and essential items faced shortages. Rivera’s piece displays frustration and criticism of these issues that have hardly received the mainstream coverage they deserve.

Ellapsium: master & Helm by Jared Owens

Three painted panels with painted blueprints of a slave ship and federal prison overlapping.
Jared Owens, Ellapsium: master & Helm, 2016. Mixed media on birch panels. Each: 48 x 31 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood. Source: Original Photo

With Ellapsium, Jared Owens addresses the racism of the criminal justice system as well as hierarchies and power struggles within Fairton, the correctional institution where Owens was imprisoned.  This complex work features symbolism as a form of rebellion and disapproval, and bears an immediately recognizable resemblance to the infamous map of the Brookes Slave Ship from 1788 that displays how slaves were forced to live through their passage to America. This intentionally chosen symbol represents the violence, dehumanization, and other atrocities that slaves faced in early American history. The second and less known image present in this work is a blueprint of the Fairton prison; Owens’ combining of the two blatantly compares the horrors of the historical institution of slavery to the atrocities and discrimination committed by the United States’ current carceral state. Owens also utilizes color symbolically throughout his piece, and all of the colors used correlate to the artist’s daily life within a federal institution. The green of the institutional walls represents restriction and being subdued, blue represents the uniforms worn by prison guards, and brown represents the uniforms of those imprisoned. Orange, the most used color within the piece, was used within Fairfield to indicate areas that were off limits and unavailable to incarcerated persons, so Owens deliberately used that color for the boundary between the blueprint of the slave ship, of Fairfield, and the world outside of the two. 

Owens is open about how his pursuit of art posed a legitimate threat to him within the Fairfield facility. Being caught with planks of wood to paint on or stretch canvas could have resulted in solitary confinement, extension of his sentence, or complete confiscation of personal possessions and art supplies. While these overwhelming restrictions greatly limited Owens while he was in prison, he has chosen to use his experience to create, raise awareness, and call for change- like so many artists featured alongside him in “Marking Time”.

Peace, Love, Harmony by Susan Lee-Chun

A rack of uniform orange detention hoodies, with patterns on the interior lining.
Susan Lee-Chun, Peace, Love, Harmony, 2007. Cotton fabric and dye. 36 x 60 x 18 in. Courtesy of artist. Source: Original Photo

Women on the Rise! (WOTR) was a feminist art project founded by Dr. Jillian Hernandez to provide girls in juvenile detention facilities with a platform for self-expression and dialogue. Inspired by her participation in this project, Susan Lee-Chun worked with a group of girls in juvenile detention to explore the politics of fashion, and asked her participants to “Think about who you are, what words, images or symbols define you or your beliefs. Use them to create a fabric design”. The resulting hoodies on display conform to detention center uniforms on their exterior, and on the inside feature patterns with rainbows, checkers, and the word “Love”. Upon completion of this project, Lee-Chun attempted to give the girls she worked with the resulting hoodies of their creation; and was denied that request. None of the girls involved were allowed to wear the hoodies. In public defiance, Lee-Chun’s hoodies now hang among the many artworks of “Marking Time”, criticizing a system that would prioritize conformity and uniform over the individuality, creativity and expression of a child. 

How To See “Marking Time”

If you would like to see “Marking Time” and any of the artworks or artists featured above first hand, the exhibit is free and available to the public until December 11. Reserve your free ticket to view the exhibition here. Spaces per time slot are limited to 10 for a one-hour long visit. If you cannot make your time slot for any reason, please cancel the booking or call 205-975-6436. If you have any issues with booking your ticket or would like to reserve a group tour, contact AEIVA at aeiva@uab.edu. 

Visitors must wear a mask at all times inside the AEIVA building and keep socially distanced. Free and metered parking is available along the streets surrounding AEIVA. Safety is UAB’s priority. The pandemic is a fluid situation that UAB is monitoring, in consultation with infectious disease and public health experts; events will be subject to change based on the latest COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

All upcoming “Marking Time” programs are designed as hybrid events, with both in-person and virtual components. AEIVA is prepared to move any of the events entirely virtual at a moment’s notice. Visit AEIVA on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for the latest updated information.

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

The First Step Act: A Step Towards Criminal Justice Reform

A slightly open jail cell door.
Untitled. Source: Neil Conway, Creative Commons

On December 21 of 2018, Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law.  This piece of legislation has been marked by some as a massive breakthrough in criminal justice reform.  The bill is intended to “ensure people are prepared to come home from prison job-ready and have major incentives to pursue the life-changing classes that will help them succeed on the outside and includes changes that will potentially lower the cost of upkeep for correctional facilities. 

Improving Experiences of Time in Prison and Their Outcomes 

Many of the aspects of the First Step Act are geared towards decreasing recidivism (people returning to criminal behavior after being released from prison) through opportunities and resources that help prepare people for their lives after incarceration.  For example, the bill creates strong incentives to encourage prisoners to participate in preparative programs that are available to them.  For every 30 days of “successful participation,” individuals can receive 10 days of prerelease custody, where they are transferred to halfway houses or home confinement.  Incentives can also include increased phone and visitation privileges, access to email, increased commissary spending, and other requested incentives. 

The bill also designates $250 million to be used over five years by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to expand and develop skill-building classes and vocational training opportunities.  It also allows the BOP to work with outside organizations that can provide such classes.  According to the First Step Act, prisoners who are at a medium or high risk of recidivism are to be prioritized for receiving these opportunities, as well as counseling and treatment.  Before leaving federal prison, all are to receive their ID, allowing people to re-enter society more quickly and avoid “collateral consequences of incarceration.” 

In order to make it less difficult for families to visit, the bill states that people should not be placed in prisons that are more than “500 driving miles” away from their families.  This improves their ability to maintain ties with their relatives, which can improve their quality of life while incarcerated and make the process of reintegration into society easier afterwards. With the help of a strong support system and the tools needed to find work, released prisoners have a better chance of finding their place in their communities and not being reincarcerated later. 

Decreasing the Population Actually in Prison 

There are some aspects of the First Step Act that help to decrease the population of people in prison.  Increases the number of days of good time credit, which is earned through good behavior, from 47 to 54 days per year.  This change also applies to everyone in federal prisons who has already earned good time credit.  It is estimated that this change will save $40 million in the first year.  Additionally, the bill required the BOP to transfer prisoners that are considered low/minimum risk to prerelease custody and expanded compassion release.  Eligibility for the elderly offender program of compassion release now starts at age 60 instead of 65, the minimum portion of one’s sentence that must be served has been decreased from 75% to 66.7%, and the program is now available in all prisons. 

Views of the Purpose of Prison 

One’s understanding of the importance of legislation like the First Step Act can be significantly impacted by their perspective on the purposes of prisons.  Some people believe that prisons should be used to achieve retributive justice, where the main purpose is to punish criminals for their wrong-doings and to have them suffer for their action.  For someone who believes in retributive justice, the changes made by the First Step Act may not seem so important.   

Alternatively, other people believe that the incarceration system should be used to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them to re-enter society as individuals who can make more positive contributions to their community and avoid taking actions that would lead them back to imprisonment.  When you look at the First Step Act from this point of view, it is easy to see why the bill’s intended impacts are so significant.  It gives people a chance to learn from their mistakes and helps them become more productive members of society. 

Three prison windows.
p1000578.jpg. Source: David Johnson, Creative Commons

Why It Matters 

As of 2016, there were 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States.  That year, $57.7 billion were spent in state expenses for the upkeep of correctional facilities.   

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Chronic illnesses go untreated, emergencies are ignored, and patients with serious mental illness fail to receive necessary care,” which, in some cases, has led to the deaths of incarcerated individuals.  This violates Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that everyone has the right to a living standard that is sufficient to support their health and well-being and specifically includes things like medical care and vital social services.  Prison authorities are legally responsible for providing prisoners with their medical needs, based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Estelle v. Gamble.  The ruling recognizes the potential of ignoring these needs to “amount to cruel and unusual punishment” due to the pain and suffering they can cause.  However, overcrowding in prisons and a lack in resources makes giving prisoners the care they need a challenge. 

The intended outcomes of the First Step Act can improve the access to human rights of people who have been incarcerated.  As it is said in the UN’s Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, prisoners are entitled to all the rights that are declared in the UDHR and other human rights documents and should have access to resources that can aid their ability to successfully rejoin society.  Decreasing rates of recidivism, as the actions of the First Step Act hopefully will, helps to lower the number of people in prison overall.  This allows for a change in the allocation of funds to take better care of people living in prisons, giving them greater access to their human rights.  People living in prisons are human beings just like everyone else and should not be treated as anything less.