Locked Up: The Mass Incarceration Crisis

Prison. For most Americans, the word brings up grim images of barbed wire, decrepit recreation areas, and orange jumpsuits. But rarely do we look long and hard at those wearing the jumpsuits, and why they're wearing them. The common assumptions are murder, rape, robbery, and so on. But the fact is that, in our prisons today, the largest number of inmates are being held for nonviolent, drug-related crimes as a result of laws made to target the lowermost part of the population.

The "war on drugs" began with a simple phrase, uttered by the most powerful man in the country. On June 17, 1971, Richard Nixon declared, "America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse." With those words, he launched the snowball that would roll into the mass incarceration crisis that our country faces today. 

As lawmakers began to follow Nixon's lead and act "tough on crime," the laws became increasingly harsh. Because of this, law enforcement has been forced into the role of a mill worker, feeding poor, uneducated people into the machine the criminal justice system has turned into. Many times, criminal justice officials feel that the laws are simply inevitable, Pamela Everett, former prosecutor and current professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Reno, explains.

Every day, judges are forced by law to convict nonviolent offenders with sentences previously reserved only for violent crime. In The House I Live in (2012), a documentary focused on the war on drugs, Iowa judge Mark W. Bennett is forced to do exactly this. He then laments having to put this poor, young African American with a family history of drug abuse in jail. He knows it will just continue the cycle of incarceration.

It's not just judges who are influenced by the system, either. Law enforcement officers are actually rewarded for the amount of arrests they make, via overtime pay they make filing from arrests, and more readily receiving promotions if their numbers are high. So, an officer arresting low-level drug offenders is, in the eyes of his supervisors, more successful and productive than his counterpart in homicide, who can only make a few arrests a month, due to the nature of the crime. 

rPolice chiefs use these statistics to make their departments look better, too, Everett explains. At the end of the month, if arrest numbers are high, the police chief can show the city's mayor that their station was tough on crime, and this gives them more credibility as a department, therefore justifying further funding for drug busts, overtime, and so on. In The House I Live In, David Simon, former journalist and creator of The Wire, comments that this has destroyed the police deterrent, since people in targeted communities feel that police no longer need or care about probable cause.

Now, because of the system that was created by Nixon and other policymakers' "War on Drugs", prisons and jails are completely overrun with nonviolent offenders, who, thanks to mandatory minimums, are serving ridiculously long sentences for low-level crimes. In 2002, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 24.7% of the near 500,000 inmates were being held for drug related offenses, split almost evenly between possession and trafficking.
Reno specifically is the 15th "jailingest" state in the U.S. with an imprisonment rate of 712 per 100,000. Louisiana is the 1st "jailingest," imprisoning 1,082 per 100,000. The U.S. average: 698 per 100,000.

The most alarming thing about Reno's incarceration numbers is not the rate, though. Despite only making up only 9% of Nevada's general population, African Americans represent more than 29% of the prison population. In response to this statistic, Everett speculates that it may be due to the large amount of minority populations living in poor, crime-susceptible areas of Nevada. 
"We [law enforcement] scoop up those people because they're in the neighborhoods we patrol, and then once they get in the system, it's over for them," Everett says. "And, for some of them, that's the way it should be. For others, it's minor drug offenses and they're never gonna get out."
But, according to Everett, the most prominent issue with mass incarceration is seen in the overcrowding and subsequent conditions in our neighboring state's jails and prisons. California has 117,183 people in prison as of the week of Sept 21, 2016, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Due to poor conditions such as lack of health care and effective protection for inmates, the state was ordered by a federal court to release 40,000 inmates, and ended up being able to drop 55,000. However, this was largely due to their moving inmates to private prisons in different states, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
The drug laws that have lead to overpopulation, which were meant to clean up the streets and make communities safer, never really did what they were meant to do. Since it's start in 1971, the War on Drugs has cost more than one trillion dollars and resulted in 45 million arrests, while illegal drug use has not changed, David Simon, former journalist and creator of The Wire, declares in the documentary.

Let's look at that statement. Has illegal drug use really not changed at all? 
Sure, teen drug use has gone down 50% since 2000, according to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) findings, but there is no proof that tough laws are the cause. There are many other, more comprehensive measures that may have contributed. Education, for one. In 2001, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program was categorized as ineffective, and since then education has aimed to provide youth with the knowledge and skill to reconsider illegal drug use, in the hopes that future generations will be less susceptible to illegal drugs. 
But, for those teens and adults who do end up in the world of drugs, especially those who are part of a minority group, there are a number of factors working against them. These include not being given bail due to socioeconomic status, mandatory minimum sentences, and discriminative laws. Some of these laws are discussed in the documentary This House I Live in (2012), like the laws for "crack cocaine," or a cheaper, diluted, and smokable form of cocaine. When cocaine first became popular in the '80s, it was associated with rich white businessmen and supermodels--those who could afford it. 

Crack cocaine, on the other hand, was affordable, and so the large part of the African-American population that had been forced into ghettos was able to access a high that distracted from their troubles. When the public realized the effect crack was having on the community, harsh laws came into effect that required crack offenses to be prosecuted at a ratio of 100:1 against cocaine offenses. Which means, explains Everett, that if the sentence for possession of cocaine is one year, the sentence for crack cocaine is life. 

Since then, the mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine as compared to cocaine has been rolled back to 18:1 by the Obama administration, but organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) protest that this still isn't good enough. Formed in 1991, by Julie Stewart, when her brother was unfairly sentenced for growing marijuana. FAMM states (on their website) they've "worked to eliminate mandatory sentencing laws and promote sentencing policies rooted in the fundamental American values of individualized justice, fairness, proportionality, and respect for liberty and due process.". Essentially, they are aiming for a less standardized, and more individualized, justice system that takes into account the specific issues in each case, such as a rough upbringing or mental illness.

For Everett, the mental illness issue is the most concerning. Since the U.S. has moved away from previous efforts to institutionalize and treat mental illness, arguably in order to be more cost efficient, those suffering from such diseases who act out will almost always up in prison (or killed by police--but that's another issue). If a mentally ill person acts out, says Everett, you don't call the psychiatric hospital, you call the police. And once these people end up in prison, there's little to no rehabilitation or health care available to them, and so they often end up being sent back soon after their release.

"The criminal justice system is the mental health system in this country," Everett says.

Historically, drug laws have been used to eliminate the undesirables of society at that time, the documentary argues. In the early 1900's, opium laws put Chinese immigrants who were "stealing American jobs" in prison. Later, it was the crack cocaine used by poor African Americans in ghettos. Then it was marijuana, thought to be smoked and sold widely by Mexican immigrants. Currently, it's methamphetamine and heroin, used by poor, "white trash" people (and so on).

As you can probably tell, there are a crazy amount of factors that go into the mass incarceration problem. Although the biggest culprit seems to be the War on Drugs, this spirals out into: political motivation to appear tough on crimes, monetary motivation to police officers and corrections officials, implicit bias against specific communities, the lack of progression in laws and solutions for mental illness or drug rehabilitation, and much, much more.

It is like a huge, "mass incarceration statue," says Everett. Elaborating, she points out that you can stand in front of it and see it one way, but when you walk around it you see that it's an incredibly "multifaceted, tentacled" issue that will take not one single solution, but a complete overhaul of the system.

Until we begin to seriously take a look at the crisis we face and why we're facing it, nothing will change. Prisons will continue to spill over with nonviolent offenders, and those who end up in the system will be stuck forever.

© 2016 Insight Magazine