The U.S. houses one out of every 100 American in prison and pays for it with our tax dollars. All Americans have a civic duty of learning the history and system behind incarceration in the United States.
According to all faiths, we as citizens have a religious duty to reform the prison system and help the incarcerated, whether they are Muslims or the non-Muslims.
However, there are numerous verses in the Qur’an and narrations of the Prophet Muhammad to provide food, love and to treat captives well.
It is important to note the early history of mass incarceration in the United States which began shortly after the end of the Civil War.
Many Americans believe slavery is abolished, however, the truth is prisoners are used as cheap labor and prisons are a moneymaking industrial complex.
Mass incarceration is a term used by historians to describe the substantial increase in the number of incarcerated people in the United States’ prisons over the past 40 years.
Michelle Alexander, civil rights litigator and author of the book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness” describes mass incarceration as “the criminal justice system with web of laws that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison.
She further states “the 13th amendment rendered slavery illegal except for prisoners and, after slavery, many laws were enacted to marginalization and target the African-American of which led to mass incarceration”.
Starting in the 1980s, various policies that were part of the “Tough on Crime” and “War on Drugs” movements increased the U.S. incarcerated population more than 500 percent in 30 years with now more than 2.6 million people in jails and prisons.
Giving three life sentences to a juvenile for a nonviolent drug offense for possessing less than 1 g of crack cocaine is not justice.
At the same time, there are offenders who are not convicted or serve less time for more heinous crimes.
Take for example the case of a sexual assault on the Stanford University campus by a star swimmer who received only 6 months in a county jail.
Which is a greater crime — possessing crack for his own use or a rapist who has forever changed the life of the woman he attacked? One difference in these two cases is clear. The person possessing the crack was an African-American male. The rapist was an affluent white male.
The other cause of the increase in the U.S. incarcerated population is the deinstitutionalization of mental health asylums and criminalization of mental illness.
Dr. Terry Kupers has done amazing work on this subject in his book “Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It.
One of the realities for prisoners in America is the high likelihood of their returning to prison once they are released, which is called the recidivism rate, and can range from 70 percent to 90 percent.
Many factors affect the recidivism rate such as lack of education, food insecurity, employment, housing and the lack of re-entry programs.
Education is a major factor in the ability to not return to prison. While research has shown the power of higher education, one of the unjust policies that came out of the “tough on crime” movement was a bill signed into legislation by former President Bill Clinton making prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants.
The economic and social impacts of mass incarceration has been devastating on poor communities, minorities and people with mental illnesses.
According to a 464-page report published by the National Research Council, state spending on corrections increased 400 percent between 1980 and 2009.
The result, the NRC points out, is that prisons are now some of the primary providers of health care, counseling, and job training to the country’s most disadvantaged groups.
At the state level, tight budgets have forced governors and lawmakers to ease drug laws and relax harsh incarceration policies, and to look for more cost-effective criminal justice solutions, including investing in better drug treatment and parole programs.
There’s no straightforward way to estimate the impact of mass incarceration on the jobs market.
In a speech to the NAACP, former president Barack Obama insisted “the real reason our prison population is so high” is that “over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before.”
The War on Drugs, he suggested, is just a continuation of America’s “long history of inequity in the criminal-justice system,” which has disproportionately harmed minorities.
Two days later, Obama became the first sitting president to visit a prison. Speaking immediately after his visit, the president blamed mandatory drug sentencing as a “primary driver of this mass-incarceration phenomenon.”
To underscore that point, he met with half a dozen inmates at the prison, all of whom had been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.
According to Heather Ann Thompson, Professor of History and Afro-American and African Studies, University of Michigan, in an online article on The Conversation website, throughout American history, unspeakable abuse of men and women has been allowed to happen behind prison walls because the public had no access.
Thompson states, “If we pay close attention to what has been happening much more recently behind bars, the closed nature of prisons remains a fundamental problem in this country.
“It is no wonder the facilities across the country erupted in protests for better conditions.”
According to Thompson, “It wasn’t until concern was raised about babies being born with brain damage we learned that women are shackled during childbirth in our prisons.
“It wasn’t until brave health care professionals came forward we learned about the many broken bones and internal injuries prisoners were suffering at the hands of their captors.
It wasn’t until prisoners ended up dead with marks on their body indicating to outside coroners they had been tortured that we knew about the traumas the mentally ill are suffering in prison. And, sadly, it isn’t until we hear of cases being filed on behalf of children that we finally learn how many of them have suffered sexual and physical abuse and about how much emotional distress they suffer from being kept in utter isolation.”
Thompson also discusses author Nell Bernstein, who in her book, “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison,” tells of a 12-year-old boy whose mother visited and discovered him “rail thin, with his eyebrows shaved off, a dent in his temple and with a huge black eye, a busted lip, and a bruise on his rib cage in the shape of a boot.”
“When she asked him how he had gotten so injured he explained flatly, “Mom, this is what happens ... A guard did this. They want you to know who’s boss.”
Editor’s note: Mohammed Khaku is a resident of Upper Macungie Township.