Mass Incarceration: the Prison Systems Failure

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Too Many People and Too Much Money
  • Injustice
  • Racism
  • Conclusion


I am lucky. I have never spent time in the back of a squad car. I have never slept overnight in a detention cell. I have never gotten my hands locked and chained behind my back. Nor have I ever seen a loved one get sentenced. Perhaps the closest thing I get to crime is on the television, or at the movies. Fortunately, I can say that no one in my family has fallen victim to the confusing monstrosity of the United States prison system. In there they do not see individuals clearly. They see with an indifference and a hatred filled stare.

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America is the biggest incarcerator in the world. We are leading in a one-man race, that we purposely invented! It is messed up. These ‘War on Drugs' and ‘War on Crime' are simply just a war on people. To be tough on crime is good, but majority of the results are in: the U.S. has bad policy. Policy that feeds a ффfestering system who is cruel, shortsighted, and foolish. "We're living inside of a massive 75 dollar billion per year failed experiment," remarked Hank Green a researcher and creator of educational videos (Vlogbrothers 2017). And we need to do something about it.

Too Many People and Too Much Money

Obviously, in America we send people to prisons to be punished, to prevent them from doing bad things again, and to deter others from further breaking the law. As a nation we are really good at punishment. America has around 25 percent of the worlds incarcerated people, but only 4 percent of the world's population. Reports show that the federal prison population has grown 40 percent since 2001 (Aizer 2017). Also, a study by Joseph Doyle, a profesor from the MIT Sloan School of Management, shows that 41 percent of American juveniles have been arrested by the time they turn 23. Even 13 years old have been sentenced to die in prison (Doyle 2013). 2010 was the first year in nearly 40 years that the number of incarcerated individuals in America did not increase. However, this is not a cause to celebrate. It is illogical that these numbers can be this high when the crime rates are not even comparative to that of other countries. The old and the young are being punished again and again on a single crime.

Population is only a sliver of a much larger crime reduction problem, and the problem is an expensive one. The budget for the Bureau of Prisons, after rising by one third from 2001 and 2011, has fallen by nearly 12 percent since then. And costs for services like pretrial detentions have doubled over the past decade (Holland 2013). And according to the White House budget, the cost of incarcerating federal prisoners is expected to continue to grow, and the Inspector General notes that, "There is no evidence that the cost curve will be broken anytime soon." Some of that cost growth is the result of an aging prison population. Elderly inmates are three times more expensive to incarcerate than their younger counterparts. Some institutions such as state California prisons are not only suffering from overpopulation but also with costs. They are paying more than 100,000 dollars per year per prisoner (Stanford 2018). These long prison sentences have helped to decrease crime, but no more than 25 percent of the decrease that we've seen can be attributed to incarceration. America needs to see that the cost in not only money. It is our country, our people, and ourselves.


The United States prison policy seems to be simple: if you have committed a felony, they give up on you. Almost everyone who enters a prison is capable of growing and changing, but yet there is no revitalising program. Doctor Redonna Chandler, who studies drug abuse and treatment at the NID, illustrates more, "Extraordinary numbers of people are in prison because of drugs, although it is not a place to get drug treatment. They come out and then we're surprised that we have the highest recidivism rates." This then causes a chain reaction inside the cycle of incarceration and overcrowding (Chandler 2014).

Arguably individuals are sent in to be punished, and only punished. But what happens when these damaged people are released? From not getting help from within, there are even more obstacles waiting on the outside. Once you have a conviction on your record, the system will make it intentionally hard to get a job-- and just live your life. Convicts are ineligible for welfare, student loans, public housing, and food stamps. Not to mention that many are often socially disconnected from their community and family support structures (Hager 2016). These fixable factors adds to high recidivism rates, high rates of homelessness, and high rates of suicide. John Green, an award winning author, once said on the topic, "Somewhere along the way, we started to think that being tough on crime meant being tough on criminals. But that's not the same thing." (Green 2016).


I would like to tell a joke pointed out by John Oliver, an Emmy winning political writer: Black people who commit drug offenses go to jail with their hands cuffed, whereas white people do not go to jail at all (Oliver 2014). Drugs laws seem to be a little draconiana and a lot racist. A study in 2016 at Yale University has shown that while white people and African Americans use drugs about the same amount, African Americans have been sent to prison for drug offenses up to 10 times the rate for some utterly no reason (Rosenberg 2016).

Many say there is no hope for ending mass incarceration in America. I find that, today, many people are used to millions cycling in and out of the system. They view it as an unfortunate, but basically inalterable fact of American life.

Dr. King once said that the time had come to shift from a civil rights movement to a human rights movement. Meaningful equality could not be achieved through civil rights alone, basic human rights must be honored. The right to work, the right to housing, the right to quality education, the right to food. Without basic human rights, he said, civil rights are just an empty promise (King 1955).

To build a better system we must not ignore the racism that it involves. I hope we will build together a human rights movement to end mass incarceration. A movement for education, not incarceration. A movement for jobs, not jails. A movement to end all forms of discrimination against people released from prison. Discrimination that denies them rights to work, have shelter, and food. Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, litigator, and scholar states, "This movement must bring immigrants, who are viewed as criminals, together with those who have been labelled criminals due to poverty and drug offenses, and all the rest, together in a common movement for basic human rights, basic human dignity."


Americans have a habit of thinking prisoners are something external to the world. I mean after all there are literal walls between them and society. Walls topped with razor wire and watched over by people holding guns. But millions of prisoners are released each year: today's prisoners are tomorrow's neighbors. So corrections should probably be the most important piece in the incarceration problem. Policy makers are finally beginning to realize the magnitude of the prison systems failure, and hopefully they will be able to fix it. To end with one more argument, I would like to say: no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you have done, each American is entitled to basic human rights, dignity, and justice for all.

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