Ever since I was a kid, the idea of going to prison has terrified me. Prisons remind me of factory farms–overcrowded cages that churn out cheap laborers who have been stripped of their dignity and some of their basic rights as citizens, such as the power to vote for the policymakers who shape our country’s criminal justice system. What’s even scarier is how easy it is for nonviolent offenders and even innocent people to end up in prison.
Innocence Project estimates that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent. This means that, at a minimum, well over forty thousand people in prison right now are serving time for crimes they didn’t commit, and some estimates put the number at over one hundred thousand. Additionally, PNAS estimates that more than 4% of death row inmates are innocent. It’s impossible to know for sure, but if this figure holds true, that means it’s possible that over forty innocent people have been executed in the U.S. since 1976. That is a horrifying thought.
Not all people experience the same risk level of unjust or excessive punishment. African Americans make up approximately 12-13% of the U.S. population, but 40% of the male prison population. 1 in 3 black men will go to prison in their lifetime. That means that 33% of the black male population will at some point be deprived of the right to vote and likely be required to perform menial labor for an extremely low wage. Sound familiar? There’s a reason many have likened prison to slavery. The similarities are chilling.
The injustices leveled against people caught in the clutches of the criminal justice system are compounded for women. 60% of women are in prison for nonviolent drug crimes and 67% of women in prison are mothers of children under the age of 18. That means that the majority of women in prison have been forcibly separated from their children even though they pose no violent threat to society. Furthermore, 90% of women in prison for killing a man did so because that man abused them. It seems that self-defense is viewed by the police as a crime–if you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a woman of color, as statistics show that minority women, like black men, are disproportionately targeted for imprisonment.5 Books + Resources About Injustice in the Criminal Justice SystemClick To Tweet
Women in prison are routinely subjected to gender-specific abuses that male prisoners do not experience, such as the withholding of tampons and sanitary napkins, and being shackled while giving birth–because clearly, a woman in labor is a serious flight risk.
This is just a brief overview of some of the most egregious problems with the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex. I haven’t even touched on the issues rife in juvenile detention centers and the way courts handle juvenile crimes. There are so many problems with the current system, it would be impossible to list them all here. Needless to say, the system we have is royally fucked. And that’s putting it delicately.
Recommended Books + Resources
Note: This post contains affiliate links. Complimentary copies of some of the books mentioned here were provided by the publishers.
For an unforgettable example of how the justice system screws over the poor and disenfranchised, read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.
For an interesting analysis of the causes of mass incarceration and how we can achieve reform, try Locked In by John Pfaff.
To learn more about the specific problem of mass incarceration of women and the unique issues they face in prison, try Women Behind Bars by Silja J.A. Talvi
How You Can Make a Difference
There are a number of great organizations that are fighting to reform the criminal justice system. You can see a comprehensive list at Piper Kerman’s website. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Equal Justice Initiative – This organization was founded by Bryan Stevenson (author of Just Mercy) and is “dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.”
- American Civil Liberties Union – The ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project “focuses it’s work on the ‘front end’ of the criminal justice system–from policing to sentencing–seeking to end excessively harsh criminal justice policies that result in mass incarceration, over-criminalization, and racial injustice.”
- Innocence Project – This organization “exonerates the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent further injustice.”
- Reprieve – Reprieve is a UK-based, internationally-focused organization which provides “free legal and investigative support to…those facing execution, and those victimized by states’ abusive counter-terror policies–rendition, torture, extrajudicial imprisonment and extrajudicial killing.”
- Books Through Bars – This organization distributes “free books and educational materials to prisoners in seven states.”
Contact your state representatives to advocate for criminal justice and prison reform. You can find your representatives here.
What are the best books and articles you’ve read on the problems in the criminal justice system? What are you doing to make a difference?