America’s Prison Problem

A closeup of the lock of a brick jail cell with iron bars and a key in the locking mechanism with the door open


Two weeks ago, I went on a field trip to Philadelphia for AP U.S. History. Our class visited the Eastern State Penitentiary, the National Constitution Center, and Independence Hall. For me, the most interesting tour of the day was at the Eastern State Penitentiary. Active from 1829 to 1971, the Eastern State Penitentiary is a large prison located in the middle of Philadelphia. The prison infamously held Prohibition gangster Al Capone for about a year on the charge of illegal possession of a firearm. On the tour, our class also learned about the modern U.S. prison system. According to the most recent data, taken in 2014 by the Department of Justice, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. For every 100,000 people, 720 of them are in prison. Currently, about 2.3 million people in the U.S. are incarcerated in state or federal prisons, county jails, and juvenile detention centers. Prisoners in the U.S. alone make up 22% of all the people incarcerated in the world. So why is this?

To answer the question of why the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, we must trace the problem back to its source: crime itself. A study conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank studying criminal justice in the United States, finds that prior to incarceration, most prisoners make about 41% of what non-incarcerated people make. For example, this study found that on average, a white incarcerated male made about $21,000 a year prior to their incarceration, while a non-incarcerated white male makes about $47,000 a year. In addition, areas with higher poverty rates also tend to have higher crime rates, particularly higher violent crime rates. A notable example of this is the current situation in the city of Chicago. According to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate in Chicago is 14% overall. About 1 in 5 children in Chicago live in poverty. Homelessness is also an issue that contributes to prison rates. A study conducted by Sheffield Hallam University in 2010 found that 28% of homeless people have committed a crime to get off the streets.

There is systematic racism among the police of this country. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested than white people. In many areas, police harassment is a daily routine for many people of color. Police officers will often treat misdemeanors as felonies and show extreme brutality towards people of color. But it’s not just black people who must endure this harassment. In general, those who are held at a lower socioeconomic status in society must regularly endure police harassment. For example, in the Pigtown, a poor neighborhood of Baltimore, white residents have regularly reported police harassment, especially in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray shooting.

In the United States, most criminal cases are decided by entering guilty pleas, rather than going to trial. However, if one chooses to go to trial, they might not be able to get quality legal representation. Because a majority of people who are arrested generally come from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, they might not be able to afford a private attorney and instead must be represented by a public defender. Public defenders are defense attorneys who work for the state, not a private law firm. In addition, compared to prosecuting attorneys, public defenders are severely underfunded. Most public defenders must handle multiple cases at once while prosecutors have five times the amount of staff at their disposal. In several states, if someone is convicted in the court of law, the judge must sentence them to a mandatory minimum. For example, as marijuana is currently an illegal drug on a federal level, someone will be sentenced to a year in prison for a first offense where marijuana is still illegal.

After someone is arrested, tried, and convicted, they can be sent to prison. Our current prison system is focused on punishing offenders, rather than trying to reform them. About one fifth of prisoners in the U.S. are held in a private prison. Almost all private prisons are controlled by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). In 2016, CCA took in about 1.8 billion dollars in profits. These privatized institutions do not save the taxpayer any money, as they cost just as much on government controlled institutions. Private prisons are bad for prisoners. According to the University of Wisconsin School of Law, private prisons give about twice as many infractions as regular prisons. This is because they make more money if they house more prisoners. In addition, the CCA issues occupancy clauses to prisons, requiring state prisons to keep their populations full and pay fees to the CCA is they don’t meet their quota.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, about 1 in 5 people are in prison for non-violent drug offenses. This is a result of the failed War on Drugs. Since 1971, when the War on Drugs was declared by President Richard Nixon, the prison population in the U.S. has increased by 800%. The goal of the War on Drugs is to prosecute drug offenders and get drugs off the street. While the War on Drugs has achieved its goal of mass incarceration, illegal drugs are still on the street. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 88% of drug arrests between 2001 and 2010 were simply for the possession of cannabis. Cannabis, along with other drugs such as heroine, is currently listed as a schedule I drug in the United States. Other dangerous substances such as cocaine and meth are listed as Schedule II drugs. The reality is Cannabis is far less dangerous than cocaine, meth, heroine, alcohol, tobacco, and opioids, and the last three are legal substances. The system requires reform so we stop locking up non-violent drug offenders and begin to focus on the real issues such as helping drug addicts reform themselves and addressing the opioid epidemic that is ravaging our communities.

Many believe that the goal of prison is to reduce crime. However, a study conducted by the NYU School of Law found that the effect on that prison has had on the overall crime rate has been almost 0%. Even though our criminal justice system is riddled with corruption and bias, there are things that can be done to fix it. We can reduce poverty by making a $1 trillion investment infrastructure and creating millions of well-paying jobs with benefits. We can build homes for homeless people. It costs the average taxpayer about $31,000 a year to leave a homeless person on the streets. It only costs about $10,000 to give them a home. In addition, a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that after a homeless person is given a home, their health improves significantly. We can also make education more accessible and more affordable by making public college tuition free. We can start holding police officers accountable to their actions by requiring all officers to wear body cameras and creating special boards, composed of civilians, to investigate abuses of power amongst police officers. We can end the failed War of Drugs and legalize, tax, and regulate cannabis. We can help drug addicts reform themselves rather than lock them up in prison. We can provide more funding to public defenders, so that those accused of crimes will have a fair chance in court. We can abolish mandatory minimums. We can abolish for-profit prison institutions. We can help prisoners reform themselves so that they can become productive members of society.