By Sherrin Fitzer
Justice Anthony Kennedy has spoken out about the criminal justice system saying, “In many respects, I think it is broken.”
Having worked in prisons in varying capacities over the past 34 years I can confidently say that it is indeed broken.
With 2.3 million of our citizens incarcerated we can no longer ignore this crisis. It affects us all. People may have a loved one in prison or know someone who does. Even if that is not the case, it is our tax dollars that are being spent to perpetuate an inhumane system that is clearly not working.
Some of the effects of overcrowding are: Prisoners sleeping in gyms with only one bathroom among them. Pregnant women having to decide if they should stand in the long queue for the restroom or catch the chow line that is closing so that they can eat.
At some facilities there are too many prisoners and not enough jobs.
This leaves many people with nothing to occupy their time all day, and figuring out how they are going to supply their basic needs while living on $10 a month state pay. Prisoners are not given everything to meet their basic needs. They have to purchase soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, toothpaste etc.
This overcrowding, of course, limits the amount of “correcting” that can actually be done. There are not enough spaces available in ABE, GED classrooms, college and drug treatment programs and other self-help groups. Kennedy said that the legal profession is “focused only on questions of guilt and innocence, and not what comes after. We have no interest in corrections. Nobody looks at it.”
There are good people running and working in prisons who want to make a difference in prisoners’ lives. They have been given such an unmanageable task, though, that sometimes they simply must try to keep their heads above water.
Another issue that adds to the overcrowding and ineffectiveness of prisons is that they have become our country’s largest warehouse for our mentally ill. Prisons are filled with people who need to be in mental health facilities. I often wonder how some prisoners were found fit to stand trial. Although people try hard to help these prisoners, they are not always given the resources to the best that they can.
The incarceration of women is on the rise and many of their offenses are non-violent and are related to their past traumas and substance abuse problems. Mothers are torn from their children on charges such as possession and prostitution.
The long term costs and effects of incarcerating mothers are great for our society. Children often end up in the foster care system. Many unfortunately follow in their parents’ footsteps.
A child with a parent in prison is six times more likely than other children to end up in prison themselves.
Kennedy bemoans mandatory minimums and I agree with him—as do many judges. Prisoners have told me that judges have said them, “I do not want to give you this much time, but I have no choice.” Doing away with mandatory minimums and more community corrections, such as drug and mental health courts, would help the overcrowding issue.
He speaks of people who have spent decades behind bars. Many of the prisoners I have met who have done 15 or 20 years are more than ready to be released. They have committed a one-time crime—albeit horrible—and are not going to reoffend. Our country is also going to be faced with the graying of our prison population. This raises the issue of human dignity as well as the health care costs to care for them.
Kennedy also spoke about the negative effects of long time solitary confinement. This is what our mental health professionals refer to as decompensation. Prisoners who seemed quite well initially change drastically when put in isolation for long periods of time. Depression ensues as well as other acting out behaviors. It becomes a vicious cycle. They act out, are given more time in solitary confinement, and on it goes. Some prisons are trying to address this issue, by limiting the time people are put in solitary and for what reasons.
Senator Jim Webb has commented on the Unites States Criminal Justice system saying, “We’re either the most violent country on the planet, or we’re doing something terribly wrong.”
It is time for people to educate themselves about what is occurring behind the walls in their names. Go in and volunteer at a prison. Read. Ask questions. Participate in Legislative Day. It is time to make this unseen population visible.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak
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