Mass incarceration has become a pervasive problem for the justice system, criminals, minorities and society. Generally speaking, criminal law in America states that when a person is found guilty of committing a crime, they must be punished harshly for said crime.
Multiple factors determine the severity of the punishment for the perpetrator.
A critical point of view
Hypothetically, all justice systems are supposed to be fair in making ethical decisions. However, this is rarely the case because when individuals are sentenced, their race, ethnicity, social and economic status, and defense can all be determining factors. In most cases, some punishment results from being found guilty of committing a crime.
Although numerous forms of punishment exist, the primary form used by our justice system for most criminal acts is incarceration.
There is nothing wrong with incarcerating those who commit heinous crimes, but making incarceration the primary punishment for these individuals creates extreme and complex problems for specific ethnic and socio-economic groups.
State and federal prisons are considered “rehabilitation institutions.”
When criminals are sent to jail or prison, these institutions are considered by the government to be rehabilitation centers. During their time behind bars, prisoners are supposed to utilize the programs provided to them to become “civilized citizens.” Some “rehabilitation” programs that are offered through prisons are work-oriented. Prisoners are offered jobs while earning a living behind bars to prepare to join the workforce after their release.
In theory, these work programs seem like a great solution to help inmates rehabilitate and prepare for the working world. Prisoners make little money while working in a jail and spend it in the commissary. Most of them cannot even afford to save some of that money for when they get out because they use those funds to make jail more tolerable. They receive wages as low as $0.25 per hour and work long hours to make any type of usable funds.
These extraneous working hours and conditions can also add to inmates’ mental stress due to their environment.
By being able to pay inmates so little for their work, private prisons can maximize profits on the products they produce. These additional profits further incentivize the corporations operating jails and prisons to build more by increasing the number of those incarcerated.
Misuse of power
The misuse of power comes into play as prison corporations influence politicians to create or alter laws that will make it easier for people to be jailed. The ethnicities most affected by these actions belong to those in lower socio-economic groups, specifically black or Latino men.
Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, is an excellent example of this phenomena. Angola is a former plantation turned into a maximum-security prison where most inmates are African American males. Thousands of black men are sent to live in slave-like conditions and be exploited through the work system incorporated by the prison.
In this writer’s opinion, prisons like Angola should be abolished worldwide. Because prisons and jails can be used as places of cheap labor through inmates, mass incarceration of black and Latino men is allowed through our justice system to feed these prisons with workers.
Issues caused by mass incarceration
These factors lead to overpopulation in prisons and jails because the construction of these prisons and jails cannot keep up with the number of individuals arrested. Capitalism has created a modern-day slave system in which minority groups are unjustly sent to prison for exploitation.
Another gross problem within our prison system that leads to mass incarceration through recidivism is the weak educational programs jails and prisons offer. In theory, when individuals are imprisoned, they must learn from their mistakes to ensure they are not re-incarcerated. Inmates should be educated and rehabilitated in order to replace their past destructive behaviors with social skills that will help them thrive.
Rehabilitation institutions’ primary purpose
Jails and prisons should attempt to ensure inmates leave their period of incarceration more intelligently than before they entered. Furthermore, it should be the state’s responsibility to help inmates successfully rehabilitate.
Sadly, this is not the case as statistics show those who are incarcerated once are much more likely to end up back in jail or prison. This factor is a significant issue for minority communities because the U.S. incarcerated population disproportionately consists of black, Latino and Native American persons. The U.S. prison system does a terrible job of rehabilitating and preparing inmates for life when they get released.
Lack of funding, resources and care for an inmate’s future are issues requiring solutions. Unsuccessful rehabilitation is more profitable for prison institutions because it adds to the overpopulation problem and increases recidivism rates. A report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2022 found 63.8 percent of prisoners convicted of violent crimes released in 2010 had reoffended by 2018, compared to 38.4 percent for non-violent offenders.
With American prisons over capacity, the ability to successfully rehabilitate inmates lessens. Due to these institutions’ inability to help prepare prisoners for the world when they get released, inmates tend to be unable to rehabilitate. The formerly incarcerated will then return to society more violent and criminally-skilled than prior to their incarceration, ultimately leading to rearrest.
To conclude, although there are policies, regulations and laws put in place for the “fair” treatment of individuals within our justice system, the judge, prosecutor, jury and defense all play pivotal roles in the judgment of a person and their case.
The harsh reality
Minorities who do not have the financial ability to pay for legal expenses or representation are often subject to the worst resources. With court-appointed lawyers and no thorough investigation, the odds of these individuals being found guilty and subsequently sentenced are highly increased.
These factors lead to poorer minorities having little to no information about their situation before they receive sentencing. Mass incarceration causes an extreme racial imbalance throughout our justice system.
To combat this societal problem, we must find alternative solutions to “punishing” individuals found guilty of certain crimes instead of just sending them to jail or prison. More rehabilitation-like institutions and facilities need to be built for individuals who do not commit violent or heinous crimes.
Edited by: Steven London & James Sutton