A Look at America’s Prison Systems

This article is the first in a series of student-produced advocacy journalism pieces. We’ve spent the last month as a staff researching, writing, and editing articles on a number of issues we care about. The first installment, by senior editor Nathan Rolls, takes a look at the experience of one former inmate. 

By Nathan Rolls

I just want people to know that we are people. We’re human beings. We do make mistakes, and we can learn from them, as long as we have the resources and knowledge to move forward.

While it can be argued that prison takes violent people out of society, there is no denying the psychological, emotional, and physical wounds that our prison system causes. Prison rarely, if ever, takes into consideration the person and their story, and in doing so neglects them as well as their health and future.

Many are irritated, and even angry, at the system which essentially guarantees reentry in 3 years. Our prison system is a formula for failure, and our current 60% recidivism rate is directly correlated to the lack of educational and rehabilitation programs provided by prisons.

When I asked the aforementioned former inmate about rehabilitation programs in prison, they said:

I think I would’ve had a better chance if I was given the knowledge. My first go-around, and given the resources my first go-around, I think I would have had a better chance at being clean and stable, a lot earlier than what I am now

Currently, the United States federal budget allocates roughly $30,000 per inmate per year while in custody. This is the most expensive form of any type of punishment. Money, instead, could be directed into, for example, educational and drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. At the time of this interview, Lehigh County Jail, Luzerne County Prison, and State Correctional Institution at Muncy all have drug and alcohol programs, but only Lehigh County Jail and State Correctional Institution at Muncy offer educational programs. These programs would fight one of the biggest factors that drives recidivism so high.

The reason implementation of these programs is so difficult, however, is because of the sheer number of inmates prisons are housing. State prisons currently house the highest number of inmates than any other type of jail. In 2014, 10,000 inmates have been slapped with life sentences without having committed a violent crime.

For instance, Timothy Jackson was given a life sentence without parole for stealing a $159 jacket. Sharanda Jones, a mother with no prior criminal background, was smacked with a life sentence for a cocaine conspiracy, based nearly exclusively on testimonials. These are just two people who have been given unjust sentences, and in doing so, are congesting prisons.

Though the Eighth Amendment states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,” it’s clear, through these 10,000 people, that just because a punishment is cruel, doesn’t make it unusual.

Overcrowding becomes a concern when prisoners are left without beds, food, and other necessities. As of 2016, the State Correctional Institution at Muncy was short 27 beds. On the last population report, conducted on December 31, 2017, State Correctional Institution at Muncy runs 97% of capacity. State Correctional Institution at Muncy is one of five state prisons running below maximum capacity right now. The other 28 are above maximum capacity. The other four state correctional institutions currently housing less than maximum capacity run, on average, 88.65% of capacity. The former inmate made a statement on overcrowding in the prisons they were housed in:

Luzerne was overcrowded, and Lehigh County. They were both overcrowded. State was overcrowded as well. They were actually moving from Muncy [state] to another facility. They were moving lower level people [nonviolent offenders] to a different facility, like an open-dorm type of facility because they were so overcrowded.

At the time the former inmate was being held in State Correctional Institution at Muncy, the prison was being operated at 105% capacity.

With overcrowding comes the concern of safety. The former inmate also made a statement on prison safety:

It’s always a concern. There’s fights on a daily basis. You see people upstate, you know, fight about the smallest things, from commissary to showers to yard to, you know, ‘why are you looking at my girlfriend,’ everything. They carry razor blades in their cheeks upstate, to defend themselves. So safety was always a concern, but you just gotta lay back, don’t get in anyone’s business.

And you might think to yourself, “Well, that’s what correctional officers are for.” Think again. In 2016, 33% of inmates who are women experienced sexual assault by staff. 21% of prisoners nationwide admit to being physically assaulted by prison guards. In 2011, nearly half of all sexual assault accusations were directed at correctional officers. The former inmate commented on assaults made by prison staff:

There’s a lot. Upstate, there’s male guards, raping, you know, inmates, and like, what is that girl to do? She’s in there, she’s scared, this authority figure is supposed to be there to guide her, and unfortunately is abusing them, too. Stuff like that has happened that I know of upstate, in Muncy, and girls have gotten pregnant because of this, and then it’s blamed on the inmate, blamed on the female, that it’s her fault. There’s just…whatever, like little stuff, like they won’t let you out to take a shower, they’ll lock you up, guards will treat you like that in there. They won’t give you a bar of soap, they won’t give women sanitary napkins, stuff like that. Little things like that all the way up to rape. All in Muncy.

In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which enacted a zero tolerance policy against rape in prisons. Unfortunately, correctional officers believed that this federal law did not apply to them. The former inmate commented on the Prison Rape Elimination Act:

I honestly think they made it for inmates to other inmates. I’m hoping they had correctional officers in mind, because it does happen, and it’s known, so my opinion would be that they geared it towards inmate to inmate. However, I’m in hopes of that changing.

It’s the assault, abuse, overcrowding, extremely excessive sentences, and wearing correctional officers thin that drive recidivism through the roof. In part, society can be blamed for this. The former inmate ended our interview speaking out about how society looks at ex-convicts:

I just want people to know that we are people. We’re human beings. We do make mistakes, and we can learn from them, as long as we have the resources and knowledge to move forward, I think it would make a big difference for the victims it [prison] houses…I think society is very close minded, which is why I think they have the image of prisoners that they do, because they just think…they’re taught to think that if you go to prison, you’re bad. There’s no changing, you’re bad…that’s what your taught. And that isn’t how it should be.

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