Despite the fact that the United States represents approximately 5% of the world’s population, America is currently home to 25% of all of the world’s prisoners. This is due in part to mandatory minimum sentences for relatively minor offenses, a classist criminal justice system which includes a private prison industry, as well as systematically racist law enforcement, to name a few factors. Nearly 1% of the American adult population is currently in prison. Over the last 20 years alone we have increased our spending on prisons by 570%, now exceeding over $80 billion in taxpayer money spent on incarceration per year. Yet despite these appalling statistics, it appears as though very little has changed, as the number of prisoners in the U.S. has quadrupled in the past 35 years. However, after decades of unprecedented incarceration rates, the U.S. still has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world at nearly 60%, indicating that something isn’t working. And for the first time in modern history, we have a president willing to both admit that there’s a problem and to address it.
While President Obama’s legacy will include passing the most comprehensive health care reform in modern American history through a gridlocked congress, he has spent his last few months in office addressing an issue that hasn’t been at the forefront of the American people: prison reform.
In July 2015, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit a federal prison, an event that would, at the very least, mark the nation’s first acknowledgment of prison reform as a legitimate and pressing issue. Days after the visit, the president commuted the sentences of 46 federal inmates, the majority of whom were serving absurdly lengthy terms for relatively low-level drug offenses.
Apart from the astounding rates of arrests and incarcerations, the focus also fell on improving prison conditions as well as focusing on ensuring that youth receive the help they need before they end up in prisons. Much of this sort of work begins with Americans acknowledging that this is a problem, and namely, that this truly isn’t the norm for any other country in the world, given that the U.S. has the second highest percentage of its population currently locked up in prison, right after the small island country of Seychelles, which has a population of 90,000.
It should become readily apparent that seriously approaching prison reforms requires consideration of countless factors, which can be broken into two general categories: 1) lowering incarceration rates (whether by reducing archaic sentences for nonviolent offenses, addressing institutional racism and classism, etc.) and 2) improving conditions in prisons.
The goal of lowering incarceration rates would be to drive down the number of individuals entering the prison system. One way in which this can be done by eliminating the private prison industry in which corporations make money on the basis of individuals being incarcerated. One infamous example is the “Cash for Kids” scandal, in which the Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp., a private prison corporation, paid two judges nearly $3 million to send over 2,000 children to the company’s prisons for minor crimes. The offenses? They included trespassing into vacant buildings, stealing DVDs from stores, and creating parody MySpace pages. As long as the American judicial system continues to profit off of the incarceration of literally millions of Americans, it will not be possible to enact change and give justice a chance of unbiasedly playing itself out in U.S. courts.
Another initiative is to improve the lives of individuals once they are released from prison, namely by helping them assimilate into society, especially in either education or the workforce; however, given the pervasive taboo of having served time in prison—regardless the charge—prevents millions from incorporating themselves back into society. As such, President Obama has announced a policy known as “ban the box,” which prevents federal employers from discriminating against applicants solely on the basis of their criminal records. Instead, individuals will be considered alongside other applicants, delaying the question of criminal history to the end of the interview, which aims to promote “fair-chance hiring.”
The latest in the series of prison reform changes included a proposal to address and end solitary confinement for juveniles or low-level offenders in federal prisons.
This recent focus on prison reform by President Obama doesn’t only mark an interest of one politician; rather, they illuminate a broken and corrupt prison system, one that may be considered highly cruel and unusual in coming years, one that disproportionally targets the most vulnerable of populations, exploiting an unjust socioeconomic society for profitable and political gain.
The President’s comments appropriately question our judgment on solitary confinement. “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.” These words can surely be applied to the larger issue of prison reform as a whole.