The Idea Of Punishment: Freeing Lifelong Prisoners

The Idea Of Punishment: Freeing Lifelong Prisoners

Prisons are a necessary tool for society because of what they represent: being sent to prison is a consequence for breaking the law. The judicial system was setup to determine which crimes deserve penalties and the degree of these penalties (e.g. sentencing). Nevertheless, the goal of all prisons should be to alter and limit the future criminal actions of inmates. Once an inmate is free they should be allowed to become productive members of society. However, some prisons don’t have this goal in mind at all.

The idea of rehabilitation is something that has not been associated with prisons until recently. People that complete their sentence should be considered rehabilitated. Although some like to believe that ex-convicts are given a fair shot to re-enter society, without a proper support system, many ex-cons are likely to end up right back in prison. Once someone becomes a convicted felon, several privileges they once had are gone forever: the right to own a gun, voting, and the loss of public assistance are common rights and privileges that are taken away. However, the most indirect factor is unemployment.

While employers are legally no longer allowed to discriminate against potential hires who have previous felony convictions, businesses still find ways to get around the laws. These limited opportunities lead former felons back to illegal activities — in some cases these activities are the same ones that initially put them in prison. Felons are branded, sometimes for life, for their conviction, which in turn creates a negative life experience for them from that point. This is dangerous because once a person’s belief in their own future is gone, they start to believe they have nothing to lose in the choices they make.

The external problems inmates face deal with society and how they are perceived, while internal prison issues set the tone for inmates and their future. There are prisons that rather have an overabundance of inmates than have a lack of them. There are private prison companies that have contracts with states and are penalized by the state for a low occupancy rate. The criminal justice practices against those that are deemed the opposite of elite, along with the creation of private prisons creates the question: what is the true purpose of the criminal justice system? The Pledge of Allegiance permeates the idea of “with liberty and justice for all”, however, in many cases it is liberty and justice for some.  

Minorities And Prisons

Blacks and Latinos make up a significant portion of the prison population. According to the FBI Informational Services Division for Criminal Justice, Blacks and Latinos make up for 28.3 and 16.6 percent of total arrests in 2013, respectively. Blacks were charged significantly more than most races in crimes such as murders, robberies, and aggravated assault, although White's lead in many categories including overall prison population totals -- mostly due to higher numbers in the overall population of the country. However, Blacks and Latinos are associated more with crime in this country than anyone else. Media coverage, whether online or on television, depicts Black and Latino youth as threatening, while White youth are viewed as harmless. Additionally, White adult males are often shown in suits while in the courtroom to downplay the gravity of their crimes (the belief being suits represent someone who is well-mannered and professional).

What has been largely understated to some is the class divide that created these racist circumstances. According to an article in the New York Times, the childhood poverty rate for Blacks remains close to the number it was when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Unemployment for Blacks are double the national average, while income inequality between the wealthy and the general public has gone up tremendously. Latinos are not far behind. According to statistics from the National Poverty Center, 23.6 percent of Hispanic families were poor.

Sentencing is also a major problem for non-Whites — Blacks and Latinos have been shown to be given the harshest penalties compared to their White counterparts. A recent ACLU study states that sentencing imposed on Black males are nearly 20 percent longer that White males convicted of the same crime. Consider the case of a White student named Brock Turner who committed the same crime as Corey Batey, a Black student. Both were student athletes, both were charged with rape, and both had a significant amount of evidence against them. Turner served three months, while Batey is serving at 15-year minimum sentence.

This is not a coincidence. An article by Slate in 2015 breaks down racial disparity in the American criminal justice system. According to the data presented: Black drivers are three times more likely to be stopped than Whites; Blacks are more likely to be jailed for drug use; and Blacks are more likely than Whites to be jailed while awaiting trial. It doesn’t end there. Compared to Whites, Blacks were more likely to be offered plea deals that included jail time and Blacks are more likely to have their probation revoked. Among many studies that have been done regarding prison sentencing throughout the criminal justice system, the most damning evidence is that compared to other races, Blacks serve more time for the same offense Whites commit. This is likely due to Prosecutors more willing to charge Blacks with a crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence compared to Whites.

The sentencing of Kalief Browder also comes to mind when it comes to the effect of unfair sentencing and it’s lasting implications. Accused of stealing a backpack, Browder's case was never taken to trial. He spent spent three years in jail (two of those being in solitary confinement) until the case was dismissed. Browder’s mental state deteriorated soon after that and he eventually ended his life by hanging himself from his apartment window. There are thousands of similar cases across the country that have shown racial disparity during sentencing, but few steps have been taken to correct this.

Poor education is a crucial factor as well for disproportionate inmate counts. Education and crime become synonymous because of the lack of opportunities for people who have ended up in the prison system. According to a Department of Justice study in 2003, a large number of inmates in both federal and state prisons haven't received a high school diploma. Statistics show that compared to educational attainment of the public, about 47 percent of inmates in local jails and 40 percent of inmates in prison have a high school diploma or equivalent compared to 18 percent of the general population. Lack of financial and educational opportunities have heavily influenced the tremendous rise of prison populations in this country. Unfortunately, this affects the poor and minorities much more than any other group.

For-Profit Prisons And Free Labor

Use of prisons for labor can be traced back to the 1700’s; most notable was the the Convict Lease System. This system was widely used during the period of reconstruction. The reconstruction period was a time after the Civil War, from 1865 to 1877, in which the laws and Constitution were rewritten to grant rights to former slaves. Some considered this period in American history ineffective because when slaves were released many had nowhere to go, the South was broke, and prisons were full. To combat this, states developed a way to gain revenue. The Convict Lease System mainly allowed state prisons to negotiate terms with landowners to use their prisoners for labor. Many landowners used prisoners for labor rather than hiring workers they would have to pay fair wages. Convict leasing was mainly used by Southern states and a large percentage of the inmates that were used were Black. Back then, Blacks could easily be arrested for minor crimes, such as vagrancy, and thrown in jail. This led newly free slaves right back into being enslaved. The system was used by states in the South and West until the early 1900s. It's popularity declined when increased opposition from the general public eventually phased it out. However, chain gangs and various other prison labor practices emerged after the system was denounced.

The Convict Lease System along with new tactical indirect policies, such as the war on drugs, most likely lead to the creation of prison privatization. During Reconstruction the war on drugs created a situation where the states had an influx of prisoners. An economic opportunity presented itself for investors who felt there was an economic opportunity in prison privatization. Through research and studying the Convict Lease System, investors discovered prison privatization was a booming business and companies quickly appeared. Eventually, three big corporations emerged, having the most private prisons in the United States: CCA, MTC, and the GEO Group.

Currently, CCA (Corrections Corporation of America or recently CoreCivic), MTC (Management and Training Corporation), and the GEO Group are all corporations that have been heavily involved in lobbying Congress for tougher legislation for offenders. Their reasoning for influencing legislation is to keep prisoners (free labor for them) behind bars for longer sentences. According to a 2015 report by the Washington Post, a 2014 CCA annual report stated:

The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them … Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior.

Private prisons, such as the ones owned by CCA, normally have a 90 percent occupancy rate clause in their contract rates, with the state flipping the bill in case the rates are unfulfilled. A case study conducted by Syracuse University’s Maxwell House of Citizenship and Public Affairs touches a bit on the subject. These lockup quotas, or “bed guarantees”, requires the state to fill a certain amount of beds or pay for the ones that are empty. According to a study by In the Public Interest (ITPI), a non profit organization involved in privatization and contracting:

Of the contracts we reviewed, 41 (65 percent) contained quotas. These occupant requirements were between 80 and 100 percent, with many being around 90 percent.

Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Virginia had the highest occupancy clauses with Arizona having the worse occupancy clause at 100 percent. These clauses help restore broken windows policing tactics to ensure that the state never pays more than they have to. Policies such as stop and frisk and arrest quotas are just two known methods that have created a divide between the police and the community.

Labor policies in both public and private prisons have been controversial as well. Companies such as Victoria's Secret, Starbucks, J.C. Penney, and Idaho potatoes have been linked to using inmates for labor and hiring inmates for as low as 16 cents per hour. Although some of these companies have stopped after their relationships with prison labor practices were exposed, some companies are still associated through investments and labor. This allows many companies to either profit from full prisons or increase their day-to-day profits from practically free labor.


The solution to reforming the justice system starts with us. Activists can bring this to our attention but without public outrage and boycotts, companies will continue to use inmates for profit, minorities will still be targeted and placed in private prisons, and prisons will still be a poor place for rehabilitation. Prisons should be a place where inmates can learn from the wrongs they have done. If they have the chance to reenter society once they complete their sentence, they should have the opportunity to provide for themselves, by way of programs such as the prison release program.

Also, prison shouldn't be a place where immigrants who haven't committed a crime are held. Many of ICE’s (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees end up in private prisons as they wait to be deported. This provides free labor for the companies associated with them. This might have been the reason why many private prison company shares went up the moment President Trump entered office. Knowing his stance on immigration led shareholders to believe there would be an increased presence of immigrants to helps keep private prisons full, helping states fulfill their part of the contract. If the public comes together they can express their frustration to the elected representatives in their respective states and districts. If their representatives do nothing about the matter and continue to support private prisons, the people need to create an action plan to vote them out of office. If this is done right, many members of Congress will be forced to withdraw their support for private prisons.

Action shouldn't stop there. For private prisons to be stopped, people who are against them would have to divest from any company that is currently associated with investing in them or using prisoners for labor. Once companies start to disassociate themselves from these prisons, the prisons would either shrink before dissolving or slowly pull away from the public eye. If the latter happens, the public should make sure that these private prisons and the investors that benefit from them would never have influence in legislation again and ensure that any Congressman that supports them will never be reelected.

The actions shouldn’t just end there. The Criminal Justice system as a whole needs to be overhauled. This will need the combined power of many people across the country to step forward and express their disgust in the disparity in sentencing between Blacks and Latinos compared to Whites. To express their anger that many poor young minority men are charged an obscene amount of money to be bailed out on charges that most likely are dropped weeks or months later, and finally express a dissatisfaction at the consequences that occur for police officers who have shown a blatant disregard for life and have gotten away without jail time. Judges, District Attorneys, and maybe even high ranking members of state police departments may have to be let go. But unless accountability is held for those in power, the system will remain the same.

Although the actions may seem like a lot, a united front against, not just those who run private prisons and their investors, but the criminal justice system is the only way things can change. I believe that we can find a solution in changing the unjust behaviors of the criminal justice system as a whole, but it will take some time. It may take years, decades even, but as long as we remain vigilant and we demand more from those who represent us, we may finally turn prisons to what they were originally intended to be used for, a place for rehabilitation so we may rarely, if ever hear the term career criminal.

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