Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Prison Dilemma

America's Penal System Makes a Mockery of Democracy

By Roopal Patel and Peter McMurray

How ignorant are we at Harvard? If we were to ask the host of recommendation-writing teachers, employers, and community leaders who helped get us here, we would hear a flattering chorus of affirmation: we are the best (except CalTech), the brightest, the richest, blah, blah, blah. We've heard it all before. But what if we asked our neighbors right here in Cambridge? A conversation with the average Harvard Square denizen-a random Pit kid, homeless person, or cab driver-would quickly reveal some of the deficiencies in our education. Most of us (myself most certainly included) probably don't have a clue about the ‘real world' of poverty, crime, and homelessness that surrounds our secluded lives. Maybe our so-called ‘liberal education' isn't quite liberal enough.

Among the many deficiencies of our education, one of the most egregious is that of America's current situation regarding prison systems. Despite all of our moral reasoning, political campaigning, and service-oriented extracurriculars, it seems that we've consistently missed the bus with prisons. It's not that the penalties don't affect us. Prisons are draining our tax dollars, ruining families, and destroying lives. But sadly enough, we find more time to worry about the MCAT, a cappella groups, and crew races than about prisons. And in the mean time, the problems plaguing our prison systems including overcrowding, lack of adequate health care, exploitative prison labor, and systematic brutality are getting worse.

A War On Prisoners
Since 1980, America's prison population has more than tripled, creeping up to the two million mark. The number of females in prison has quadrupled. The strangle-hold our prisons have on the black population is particularly staggering: although blacks only make up 12% of the total population, they represent nearly half of the prison population. We've outgrown even our most ambitious prison-building programs, resulting in overcrowding, disease, and a general failure to help and reform prisoners. And fueled by America's cry for a "war on crime"-including tougher sentencing, fewer parole opportunities, and more police-the prison epidemic looks like it will continue to spread.

Granted, many Harvard students are well aware of such statistics. Some would agree with the graffiti on JFK Street that the time has come for "No More Prisons;" others would argue that these people are in prison because they committed a crime. But while such debates rage on across the country, we have failed to notice more fundamental problems with our prison system, particularly those of human rights abuses. International human rights groups, from the UN to Amnesty International, have condemned our treatment of prisoners, but their cries have fallen on deaf-and painfully ignorant-ears. Among the many offenses that America has committed against its prisoners, three have received particular attention: brutally-enforced labor programs, lack of health care, and felony disenfranchisement.

Stolen Labor, Stolen Lives
Since the first American penitentiary was built in 1817, prisoners have been set to work in hopes of decreasing idleness and helping prisoners learn to make a positive contribution to society. Within two years, however, this fine ideal of productive rehabilitation was turned into a cheap-labor-for-hire system for local factories and a precedent was set for exploiting prison labor for financial gain. Nearly 200 years later, this privatized work force produces over $1.3 billion in goods. Not surprisingly, this flourishing market has attracted the attention of private corporations and stockholders nationwide, who have now invested almost $3 billion in prison construction alone. In advertising for a conference on private prisons, one New York-based investment firm advertised the following: "While arrests and convictions are steadily on the rise, profits are to be made-profits from crime. Get in on the ground floor of this booming industry now!" As any Ec10 student could easily explain, the increased opportunity for profit has led to a desire to cut costs, leaving prisoners with an average wage between $0.23 and $1.23, hardly the ‘prevailing wage' called for by the free labor market. Any prisoner who opts not to work is then deprived of family visits, phone calls, and many recreational privileges. And if a prisoner causes any disturbances, guards stand ready to maintain order and security violently.

Corporate America is quick to defend such actions on the grounds that prisoners are learning useful job skills and a work ethic. Unfortunately, prisoners are forced into labor-intensive, menial trades such as clothes and textile manufacturing. Not only do these jobs exploit cheap labor, their practical application after release seems unlikely, as most US and transnational corporations have moved their operations to Third World countries. Upon release, prisoners find themselves with few job skills and a prison record that will further discourage any potential employer.

Cruel and Usual
Beyond these sweatshop-like conditions, however, American prisons are violating international standards of prison maintenance. The recent reinstatement of prison chain gangs-labor used as punishment-violates United Nations standards as found in the UN Standard Minimum Rules (1955). These rules explicitly state: "No prisoner shall be employed, in the service of the institution, in any disciplinary capacity." As with most UN standards, prison regulations are largely ignored by the United States. International condemnation is mounting, led by none other than the Chinese, whom we have criticized for years for their institutional prison labor. While Chinese prison exports are decreasing, our own sales are beginning to boom.

Another major issue for prisons is health care. The UN also called for adequate health care sufficient to "meet all requirements of health" and provide necessary treatments for sick, pregnant, or mentally ill patients. Furthermore, with the presidential campaign in full swing, it seems that health care discussions have become the order of the day. Even so, prisoners are largely left outside the issue. At the most basic level, many prisoners are suffering and dying prematurely from a variety of treatable diseases. One of the most threatening in recent years has been hepatitis C. Most states don't routinely screen inmates for hepatitis, and the few states that do screen generally find that roughly 1/3 of all prisoners test positive. Six months ago, Georgia Dept. of Corrections began to test inmates, only to conclude that they expected a sixfold increase in cases reported by this June. Not only is the disease expensive to treat, but it does irreparable damage to the body, inflicting serious damage to the livers and kidneys and often leading to cancer. As with most epidemics, the costs-both in terms of lives lost and money for treatment and research-are climbing higher with every day of inaction.

Mental illness also plagues prisons. A 1997 Justice Dept. study found that about 16% of the prison population suffers from mental illness. And although all jails and prisons are required by law to have personnel trained to treat such problems, adequate care for the mentally ill seems to be almost non-existent. Many critics also accuse prison psychiatrists of failing to recognize mental illness, especially in minorities. Statistics seem to confirm such accusations, as 23% of white state prisoners are deemed mentally ill as compared to 14% of blacks. Regardless of racial disparity, however, it seems that most mentally ill prisoners fail to receive the professional treatment they require.

Another fundamental health problem with prison facilities is the lack of drug and alcohol rehabilitation efforts. Recent studies indicate that 80% of all jailings are related to alcohol or illegal drugs as a result of violating drug or alcohol laws, being intoxicated or high when committing crimes, or committing crimes to support addictions. Despite such evidence, an estimated 75% of all state prisoners fail to receive needed drug treatment. Countless studies have shown the impact of drug rehabilitation programs: drug treatment significantly reduces the rate of future offenses, prison maintenance expenses, and the size of the overall prison population. But few voters and lawmakers seem to feel that America's ‘war on drugs' should be followed through with drug rehabilitation, as though pure punishment, not reform, were the aim of our prisons.

Punishment Without Representation
Finally, prisoners are losing yet another right that we Americans hold so dear to our hearts: the right to vote. For all the political flair at Harvard-from campaigning to debating to voting-it seems that many students are unaware of the fact that 46 states and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while serving a felony sentence. Massachusetts, one of the four states that does allow felons to vote, is currently moving to join the ‘tough on crime' bandwagon and take the vote away from felons. 32 states prohibit felons on parole to vote. And 14 states disenfranchise felons even after their sentence is complete.

Felony disenfranchisement is a form of retributive punishment: incarcerated criminals have broken the social contract; which guarantees their rights as long as they live in accordance to the laws determined by that society. By breaking that contract, they have taken benefits from society that they have not earned, and this action justifies taking their rights away. A retributive system of government, however, does not alleviate crime within a society. In order to correct the fundamental problems that cause crime, we should implement a penal system based on reform. A system of reform recognizes the rights of incarcerated felons.

Felony disenfranchisement means that almost 4 million Americans will not be voting in the upcoming elections, 1.4 million of whom are ex-offenders who have completed their sentence. Even more disturbing than the sheer number of voters who have lost the vote is the mounting racial inequality; 13% of all black males are currently disenfranchised. At our current pace, three in ten of the next generation of black males can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. Slowly but surely, the American legal system is taking away the vote from the ‘untouchables' of society-the poor, the homeless, racial minorities-and consequently corroding the very essence of a democratic state: the voice of the people.

Apathy or Activism?
America's prison system is failing. Inhumane labor practices, pathetic health care, and discriminatory disenfranchisement are taking their toll on our prisons and, perhaps more importantly, our society as a whole. Our ‘war on crime' is slowly becoming a corporate takeover of the lower classes of American society, and we're all sharing the costs. America has once again emerged as a world leader, but this time, it's for our outrageous human rights violations under the pretense of "law and order." As many critics have pointed out, a new kind of slavery has sprung up in America.

But we Harvard students have more important things to worry about. And after all, we aren't the ones committing the crimes, so why should we care? It doesn't really matter so long as it doesn't hurt us, right? Once again, Harvard is outdoing itself, as we set ourselves up in an ignorant state of self-approval. We have failed to recognize the community that we live in, a community that extends from our brilliant professors to the kids in the Pit, from Neil Rudenstine to all our favorite Spare Change vendors. It's time that we look beyond our own existence and reach out to those who weren't born in the lap of luxury, to those who had to drop out of high school to help support their family, to those who never got the chances we have. It's time to wake up, shake off our ignorance, and take action before it's too late.

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