The world is changing: Why aren’t our prisons?

Bryn Valdez

Despite the American population being 1/4 that of China’s, the U.S. still houses double their prison population, with 2.3 million incarcerated. With this state of mass incarceration, it has become impossible for facilities to maintain an acceptable quality of living for inmates.

Because of this, inmates are becoming overcrowded and malnourished, which in turn, intensifies the already hostile environment of prison, and leads to dangerous conditions. For example, women in Huron Valley Correctional Facility were forced to bunk in old closets, without adequate medical treatment and clothing, subsequently contracting illnesses and increasing the number of reported assaults.

46% of the prison population is made up of drug charges, many of which are minor or first time offenses. The willingness of our legal system to convict all drug offenders exposes a much deeper reality of our society.

It is no secret that the fundamentals of the war on drugs targets people of color, which is not entirely the fault of those individuals. Since the beginning of civilization, people of color have been put at a disadvantage in terms of being able to find housing, jobs, and affording an education.

When the majority of a society is biased against a minority for the bulk of history, morale begins to wear down, and crime beings to take root. Without a stable route out of poverty, many people turn to crime as their only option for an escape or income, thus leading to the disproportionate amount of people of color incarcerated in the already overflowing facilities.

In fact, unfit living conditions caused by overcrowding and raised cost of phone calls and commissary were the cause behind a prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution in April that left 7 inmates dead, and 17 injured. This followed a multi-million dollar budget cut made by South Carolina lawmakers in 2010, three maximum security prisons were closed, and many programs including rehabilitation, mental health services, and skill building programs were either downsized or cut completely.

This growing tension between inmates and government officials eventually resulted in the April 15th riot, that many reports say was ignored by staff.

In a statement from a lawsuit filed by an inmate, Rivers vs. the South Carolina Department of Corrections, it appears that guards were corrupt,” guards were allowed to assist inmates with illegal activities in exchange for payment, including the smuggling of contraband and turning a blind eye to attacks on other inmates,” said Rivers.

However, in order for the programs to continue to receive funding, South Carolina voters would have to pay higher taxes to raise the budget.

With that said, South Carolina only spends $20,053 anually on each prisoner, which ranks as the 9th lowest cost in the country, especially compared to New York’s substantial 69,355 yearly cost.

It was an accumulation of these figures that motivated inmates nationwide to participate in a strike from August 21st through September 9th, protesting unfair working conditions, lack of educational services, and low quality living conditions.

As outlined in a document released by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, demands of prisoners include payment of their state’s minimum wage, improved living conditions, right to the possibility of parole on a life or death sentence, maintained voting rights, and the end of biased sentencing against people of color. While specifics vary, essential forms of protest were hunger strikes, sit-ins, work strikes, and boycotts.

To some, these demands may seem unreasonable, but what most don’t realize is that every day, in prisons across America, inmates work full days of manual labor, only to earn $0.63 per hour at the most. In states such as South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, the majority of labor is unpaid.

This type of injust has begin to be recognized as modern day slavery, leaving inmates and allies alike to invent a solution for a broken system. It stands without argument, that it is time for a prison reform, in which the top priority is the inmates, and the goal is to keep people from incarceration.

As a start, lawmakers need to seriously considering alternative punishments for non-dangerous criminals, such as community service or fines, on top of budgeting to provide them with rehabilitation services. It is also reasonable to exonerate inmates with minor crimes, especially those serving on account of possession of a substance that is now legal.

Without an immediate inspection of how America values human freedom this crisis will continue to prevail, as will needless violence.