Politicians, reporters, activists, and everyday citizens have debated and fought the ongoing crisis of mass incarceration. Their accounts of our current system sometimes show our current system as an expression of puritanism, as an extension of slavery or Jim Crow, or as a shift but haunting reality of capitalism (Lancaster 2017). “Prison abolitionists are dismissed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unrealistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and foolish” (Davis 2003). This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of punishing people in dreadful and harmful places designed to separate them from their communities and families. Prisons are not equipped for the challenges of each individual resulting in minimal services to inmates. The prison is considered so “natural” that it is extremely hard to imagine life without prisons and harsh punishment in our country (Davis 2003). Many individuals do not realize how expensive it is to incarcerate individuals. Are there alternatives to locking people up that cost less and benefit more?
“The average cost of incarcerating an American prisoner varies from state to state. Some states, like Indiana have managed to keep prices low at around $14,000 per inmate. While states like New York pay around $60,000 to keep its citizens behind bars” (Kincade 2017). “The costs of running the American prison system is expensive and has become increasingly so despite public opposition. According to a 2012 Vera Institute of Justice study, the number of those incarcerated has increased by over 700% over the last 40 years The overwhelming cost to the taxpayer? $39 billion dollars” (Kincade 2017).
Prisons all over the country are starting to feel the pressure of having issues of overcrowding, funding, and lack of support. Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the entire United States population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015 (NAACP 2015). This incarceration rate is happening due to the fact that many prisons are run by outside private agencies and they benefit from high incarceration rates (Johnson-Watkins 2017). Johnson-Watkins 2017 explains, “The media also plays a large role in criminalizing people of color. It has been said several times that the media can make the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent. The Prison-Industrial Complex is a big deal because it is ultimately racism, hidden in politics” (Johnson-Watkins 2017). Paying attention to this growing problem can allow each citizen in our society to make decisions that can benefit everyone, not just the wealthy.
“The PIC is an economically unsustainable and parasitical system that really only benefits the top 1%. The bankers who peddle the bonds to build the prisons, the private companies that construct the prisons, and the private industries that make money off of servicing the growing numbers of prisoners, are the ones who are benefiting most from our influx of tax dollars into the PIC” (Runstedtler 2011). And, this is even before we take into consideration the ever changing and expanding private prisons or private corporations’ use of prisoners as cheap labor or even called slave labor in many instances (Runstedtler 2011; Davis 2003). “Those benefiting economically from public investment in the PIC have left nothing to chance. They have lobbied for laws that keep people in prison longer (three strikes law, truth in sentencing act), thereby ensuring a steady supply of bodies for beds. They have also welcomed more punitive immigration laws and juvenile sentencing since this has opened up new markets” (Runstedtler 2011). “Prisons have tended to lower the local tax base, depress local wage markets, and reduce the local quality of life for many individuals who are incarcerated and their families” (Runstedtler 2011).
“Imprisonment is no longer a last resort for so-called criminal activity but has most recently become the only resort as a punishment for individuals” (Johnson-Watkins 2017). “Rather than taking the time to understand the mind and the social environment of individuals who participate in criminal activity and helping to break the ever turning cycles, the criminal justice system is quick to criminalize these individuals, thus failing to realize that, in reality, these acts are just cries for help for necessary resources. There is something from their past that haunts their present and, ultimately, their future” (Johnson-Watkins 2017). And after an individual has cried out and been punished, they are going to constantly struggle because inmates are only punished, not rehabilitated or supported. “Crimes such as domestic violence, drug abuse, and theft are not looked into as actual mental illnesses that could elicit this type of behavior but just as a wrongdoing that must be punished by imprisonment” (Davis 2003). This is a sad future that many individuals in our current criminal justice system are facing. The individual who is incarcerated is suffering but also their family, their community, and society.
Prisons are arguably a very inefficient way to rehabilitate or to help with the underlying issues of why an individual commits crime. The research shows that long prison sentences have little impact on crime, and a stay in prison can actually make someone more likely to commit crime — by further exposing them to all sorts of criminal elements (Lopez 2017). At the same time, prisons are incredibly costly, eating up funds that could go to other government programs that are more effective at fighting crime. “The prison-industrial complex is not simply that it is a blatantly racist institution, but also that it is extremely expensive and is costing American citizens hundreds of dollars every year. According to former President Obama at a 2015 NAACP conference, the United States spends an estimate of $80 billion a year (or $260 per U.S. resident) on imprisonment” (Johnson-Watkins 2017).
If prison abolition is conceptualized as an immediate and indiscriminate opening of prison doors—that is, the imminent physical elimination of all structures and buildings of incarceration and the process that follows—rejection of abolition is perhaps justified and understandable (McLeod 2015). But abolition must be understood instead of a release of all offenders but a gradual change from punishment to rehabilitation. “These social alternatives include meaningful justice reinvestment to strengthen the social arm of the state and improve human welfare; decriminalizing less serious infractions; improved design of spaces and products to reduce opportunities for offending; and creating both safe harbors for individuals at risk of or fleeing violence and alternative livelihoods for persons otherwise subject to criminal law enforcement” (McLeod 2015). Many states put strict guidelines that once an individual is released from prison, they are no longer allowed to vote, obtain identifying document, or apply for any sort of welfare assistance. “When prison abolition is conceptualized in these terms—as a transformative goal of gradual release of offenders positive regulatory substitution wherein penal regulation is recognized as morally unsustainable—then inattention to abolition in criminal law scholarship and reformist discourses comes into focus as a more troubling absence” (Davis 2003; McLeod 2015).
Abolition of prisons comes at a cost and a challenging fight. Other cities in the world have chosen to take on this challenging pathway of removing prisons, or imprisoning less people. Portugal decided that they were going to take on the role of doing their best to end mass incarceration. In 2001, as the Washington Post reported that, “Portugal ‘decriminalized the use of all drugs’ and decided to treat drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a criminal matter” (Gordon 2016). The results that were found by Portugal were outstanding. Gordon 2016 reports “Portugal now has close to the lowest rate of drug-induced deaths in Europe – three overdose deaths a year per million people. By comparison, at 45 deaths per million population, the United Kingdom’s rate is more than 14 times greater. In addition, HIV infections have also declined in Portugal, unlike, for example, in the rural United States where a heroin epidemic has the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worried about the potential for skyrocketing infection rates” (Gordon 2016). How about drug use often being called a “victimless” crime or homelessness that often results in arrest and incarceration. Maybe it doesn’t make sense for the United States to lock up people who are really only hurting themselves and maybe as a society we should focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
“In order to imagine a world without prisons – or at least a social environment that is no longer dominated by the prison system – a new popular and widespread vocabulary will have to replace the current language, which articulates crime and punishment in such a way that we cannot think about a society without crime except as a society in which all the criminals are imprisoned and harshly punished” (Davis 2003). Davis argues that one of the first challenges that the United States has “is to be able to talk about the many ways in which punishment is linked to poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other modes of dominance in mainstream society” (Davis 2003). Angela Davis (2010) states in an interview “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” As a society we must struggle to fight for justice and equity within our criminal justice system. We need to fight for more social programs and understanding why individuals commit crime. “It is clear that our current prison system does not work and only perpetuates punishment linking it to poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other modes of dominance in mainstream society” (Davis 2003). We must struggle to gain progress within our criminal justice system. Our system needs to be changed and reformed as it is doing no good as it stands right now.