Anchor Staff Writer
If you were to presume the nation with the highest number of its citizens locked in cells, which would come to mind? Many would suppose Russia, China or another populous authoritarian regime. Instead, the leading nation of the free world ironically leads in this regard. The United States’ unbound mass incarceration has grown over the past decades into a mass abomination, keeping 2.5% of its entire adult population under the thumb of a broken criminal justice system.
A catastrophe forgotten, the number of citizens incarcerated only reflects this issue’s surface. Beyond statistics, the United States’ prison-industrial complex has produced diminished civil rights, widespread racial discrimination and generations of families shattered. The role of policing and prisons in the modern era has come under scrutiny since the George Floyd protests of 2020, but the complexity and magnitude of the country’s prison state makes a singular sweeping reform an impossibility. In order to deconstruct America’s greatest crisis in decades, one must understand the history of carceral expansion, the destructive consequences wrought by its unmitigated growth, and only then the process of unraveling mass incarceration can begin.
The rise of America’s modern carceral state is inextricably tied to President Ronald Reagan’s dramatic expansion of the “war on drugs” in the 1980s. Beginning under President Richard Nixon in 1971, Reagan concurred with Nixon on the supposed ties between drug use and crime, and began a dramatic expansion of anti-drug crime legislation. These laws, meant to stem the use of drugs and thus the prevalence of crime, instead bloated the United States’ federal penitentiary system, doubling its size by the end of Reagan’s term. The policies following Reagan, such as mandatory sentencing, three-strike laws and overall longer sentencing and zealous prosecution have since continued despite sporadic attempts at reform. The result of this is a rate of 47% for federal prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses, and a case of diminished returns; since the year 2000, the massive spike in incarceration had virtually no effect on decreasing crime.
The reckless prosecution of Americans has not been impartial. Black Americans face higher arrest rates than any other racial group, especially on drug offenses, and are more likely to receive harsher sentencing. Michelle Alexander, author of the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” made note on NPR how, “Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”
Along with disparate sentencing, mass incarceration bears societal impacts for those convicted. In 11 different states, convicted felons lose all voting rights unless reversed by judicial action. Seven states completely ban TANF welfare benefits after a felony drug conviction, and South Carolina continues to ban SNAP access for drug felons. Studies also show that over 60% of people released from federal prisons struggle to find employment for years to come. The aftermath of said repercussions is the United States having one of the world’s highest recidivism rates, with 77% of released prisoners being rearrested within five years.
Individual states have taken action to lower their incarceration rates. Rhode Island, for example, eliminated all minimum sentencing for drugs and reduced revocations of probation. In order to dismantle the larger prison apparatus, however, a revolution of wholesale reform must be ushered in. Norway is one country that provides a sobering look at what these reforms could look like. Norwegian prisons focus on rehabilitation above all else. To this extent, Norway aims to shape their prisons on the outside world. Their living quarters resemble college dormitories more than concrete cells, and prisoners are provided rooms with televisions and private bathrooms, work opportunities, and classes to learn hobbies like cooking or yoga.
Critics may blast the Norwegian system as a criminal coddling structure, but the statistics do not lie; Norway also boasts one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, at around 20%. The Norwegian system, of course, is not a flawless one. An overnight swap to their methodology would not end the imprisonment crisis in the United States. Instead, the most important weapon in undoing the prison-industrial complex’s carnage is recognizing its severity. The United States is at an inflection point, and while many politicians carry the mantle of Nixon and Reagan and make incarceration a partisan issue, others are now bringing to light the inequalities an out-of-control carceral system inflames.
It will be no easy challenge to undo decades of unjust laws and repair the profoundly broken judicial system. If we are able to recognize the humanity of those incarcerated, however, it will begin the first step of the journey towards crucial prison reform. If we cannot, then the wheel of injustice will continue to crush innocents underneath for generations to come.