It's Time to Pay Attention to Prison Reform

Watching the presidential debates and listening to each candidate’s platform, I hear the same issues about economics and gun control. While these are very important issues in today’s society, I wonder why I never hear any of them mention the prison system. Mass incarceration within the United States is an enormous problem, yet it seems to be the one problem no one ever wants to talk about and the one problem no one does anything to change. 

While the United States occupies only a fraction of the world’s population, we house almost a quarter of the entire global incarcerated population. We constantly and aimlessly incarcerate people around the United States for so many menial crimes, and these people have to spend anywhere from a year to their entire lives behind bars. Along with constant incarceration, the discrimination against who is arrested and imprisoned is appalling. Minorities are directly and clearly targeted, yet no one seems to want to admit this is the case. I read a book this year called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and she sums up the discrimination in a very frank, yet honest way. The prison system in the US has re-birthed a caste-like system that has placed millions of African Americans behind bars and re-delegated them to second-class status. 

Constant and aimless incarceration becomes an even worse issue once these individuals get placed into prisons because of the conditions they face when on the inside. Prison is supposed to be a form of punishment, but it also is supposed to be a means for rehabilitation. This aspect of incarceration is completely overlooked and the conditions inside prisons across the United States provide little to no means for rehabilitation. Prisoners are treated as less than human, and the physical conditions, healthcare, and mental healthcare within prisons are beyond inadequate. Some may argue that with such terrible conditions, prisoners who get released will act better because they do not want to return. This clearly is not the case. Incarcerated individuals spend their time in prison constantly berated and mistreated, with no support for education, mental health, or any other aspects of rehabilitation. 

Once prisoners are released, there is little support on the outside as well and reentering society as a “normal” person is extremely difficult. With the stigma surrounding incarcerated individuals, these people face emotional trauma, economic struggle, and educational blockages. After being released from prison, these individuals are in dire need of a job and housing. While this may be an easy task for a normal citizen, acquiring jobs, housing, or education is extremely hard with background checks, eligibility requirements, and the overall negative view from society. When formerly incarcerated individuals have no monetary or domestic means of survival, they can turn to illegal means. The stigma surrounding criminals leads to cycles of poverty and can ultimately reinforce criminal behavior as a means to simply survive. 

I’ve always been interested in the criminal justice system within the United States, but it wasn’t until last semester that I really understood just how much of a problem it was. I took a class on campus that had a lecture every week, as well as different outreach programs that you could do once a week for the entire semester. I chose to volunteer at a prison in Jackson, MI, where 6 other students and I taught a financial course to a group of prisoners. That was the first time I had ever set foot in a prison before and honestly it was such a rewarding, yet upsetting experience. Going to prison every week and talking to the inmates in the class was a huge eyeopener into how prisons actually function on the inside. The stories they told about the treatment of prisoners and the “mental healthcare” that was provided was horrific. Interacting with the prison guards and workers every week was also such an interesting and unexpected experience because of how poorly they treated not only the prisoners, but even the volunteers. I think the most important thing that I learned throughout the experience that everyone needs to realize is that prisoners are not some subset of the population or the sort of anti-hero that we make them out to be. Prisoners are human, just like me and just like everyone else. They just happened to make one bad decision that, due to the way our criminal justice system works, practically ruined any chance of a good future. 

There are so many important problems surrounding our country today, but prison reform is one that needs to be addressed. Mass incarceration is a systemic issue and can only be fixed if we start talking about it and acknowledging the fact that it not only exists, but that it is a dire issue.