America’s prison catastrophe: Can we undo it?
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The United States is the world’s largest prison warden. As of June 2020, America had the highest prisoner rate, with 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. But according to experts, doing something the most doesn’t mean doing it the best.
The system is a failure both economically and in terms of the way inmates are treated, with many equating it to legal slavery. American prisons en masse are expensive, brutal, and ineffective, so why aren’t we trying better alternatives? And what exactly are these overstuffed facilities accomplishing?
Damien Echols and Shaka Senghor share first-hand accounts of life both in and after prison, while political science professor Marie Gottschalk, activist Liza Jessie Peterson, historian Robert Perkinson, and others speak to the ways that America’s treatment of its citizens could and should improve. “The prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis,” says Peterson. “Something needs to be done.”
0:46 Marie Gottschalk on US prison statistics
2:14 Kwame Anthony Appiah on the appalling conditions in prison
2:48 Damien Echols shares first-hand experiences of prison violence
3:25 Shaka Senghor on learning to cope
3:58 Liza Jessie Peterson explains the 13th Amendment loophole for “legal” slavery
5:22 Senghor on prison labor
5:53 Gottschalk and Senghor on how society “welcomes” convicted felons home
8:07 Johnny C. Taylor Jr. on why and how to reduce recidivism
12:40 Do prisons actually reduce crime?
14:29 Robert Perkinson, Marie Gottschalk, and Peterson on ways the system can and should change
Prisons in America, specifically, are some of the biggest, most dysfunctional businesses.
For an advanced society, the conditions in our prisons are quite appalling.
And the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it.
People who have made mistakes should be deserving of a second chance.
The impact that incarceration has on reducing the crime rate is quite marginal.
There are many better, cost-effective ways to reduce crime, and we haven’t done them.
This prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis.
MARIE GOTTSCHALK: The United States is the world’s leading warden. It has more people incarcerated in prison and jail, as in absolute numbers, and as a proportion of the population, than any other country in the world. So it incarcerates about 700 per 100,000 people in prison or jail. This is about five to 12 times the rate of other Western countries and Japan. We’ve got about 160,000 people who are serving life sentences in the United States now, and a number of them who are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, in some cases, equals the entire prison populations of other large countries.
In my state alone of Pennsylvania, we’re spending as much just to send somebody, keep someone in a state prison, as to send them to college, at some of the leading colleges or universities in the state for the year. There’s a political issue about the legitimacy of the political system that locks up so many people, and disproportionately locks up so many people of color, and so many people who are poor. So often when we talk about prisons and jails, we talk about the numbers, how many people are in prison, or how many people in jail. What we overlook is that we have some of the most degrading, dehumanizing prisons and jails in any developed country.
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: For an advanced society, the conditions in our prisons are quite appalling. Going to an American prison increases your chance of getting HIV AIDS. Going to an American prison increases your chance of getting tuberculosis. Going to an American prison increases your chance of being raped, whether you’re a man or a woman, and increases your chances of being raped either by prison staff or by other prisoners, and so on. I mean, it’s just appalling what goes on in our prisons. I think it’s completely uncontroversial that these things are appalling, you are not sentenced to AIDS, you are not sentenced to rape, you are sentenced to incarceration.
DAMIEN ECHOLS: The hardest parts of being in prison, the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it. You know, there were times when I was beaten so bad that I started to piss blood. You know, they’re not gonna spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing, so it’s not like you’re gonna see a real doctor…
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