Prison reform curbs systematic injustice

On the morning of Jan. 26, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that effectively called on the Department of Justice to nullify any future contracts with private prisons.

The order is one of the many aimed at addressing systemic racism in the United States and will terminate agreements with the 12 prisons contracted by the DOJ — under which 14,000 inmates are incarcerated.

In a political climate where movements such as “Blue Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” are warring over social justice, catch-all phrases such as “defunding the police” and “don’t tread on me” have cornered the discussion on systemic racism.

It is no secret that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike find ourselves speaking on issues that, often times, we’ve only ever read about in passing online.

“Mass incarceration” is one of those phrases that we’ve all heard a million times, but one which many of us don’t understand the intricacies.

After Nixon declared his infamous “War on Drugs” in 1971, the size and presence of federal drug control agencies in predominantly Black and Latinx communities skyrocketed.

In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed which increased sentencing from drug-related offenses, established mandatory minimum sentencing, allowed for seizure of assets, and despite peer-reviewed research comparing the substances, differentiated crack and powder cocaine at a 100-1 ratio according to ACLU statistics.

To break it down, in 1970 the United States Department of Justice held roughly 350,000 individuals as wards of the prison system. Today, there are over 2.3 million Americans incarcerated.

In addition to this nearly 700% increase in inmate population, a 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics stated that Black and Hispanic Americans accounted for 56% of the prison population, but only comprised 32% of the entire U.S. population. This means that African Americans and Latinx are five times more likely than white individuals to spend time behind bars.

Privatized prisons currently incarcerate roughly 200,000 individuals, a number that has increased by 39.3% since 2000, according to a 2019 report from The Sentencing Project.

Most often, privatized prisons receive a state or federal stipend based on the number of inmates housed and the cost to house them per day. Unfortunately, this money does not often go toward the quality of life for prisoners, but rather toward building more prisons and lobbying for stricter law enforcement — something that ultimately incarcerates more people.

Being for-profit organizations, these corporations often cut corners on what many would consider inalienable rights: sanitation, educational programs and opportunities, individual housing, job search services, meals and toiletries, and much more.

In addition to these disgusting conditions and a complete lack of inmate involvement, many private prisons contract the labor of their inmates to companies for (less than) cents on the dollar. Often industrialized jobs, the pay scale for these contracted prisoners is from $0.12-$0.40 an hour, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures.

Unfortunately, these issues are only the very beginning of a long list of institutionalized injustices against the prison population — and more specifically imprisoned Black and Latinx communities. In 34 states, people who are on parole or probation cannot vote. In 12, imprisonment means never voting again.

So what does ‘Prison Reformation’ mean?

A lot of things, like addressing inmate mental health, reversing biased legislation, broadening vocational and educational opportunity, decreasing recidivism, tackling overpopulation and brutality, and ending the culture of profiting from a disadvantaged population. But ending federal contracts between the Department of Justice and private organizations is certainly a start.

Reversing systemic racism is not an easy job, nor is it one we can expect to get done without our intervention. Follow anti-privatizing and reformative legislation, call your state representatives, and advocate for those who have no voice or vote. The lives of our inmates matter.

– Sophia Buckley-Clement

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