“For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars, according to a new report.” Conducted by the Pew Center and published by the New York Times, this report points to a steady rise in incarceration rates in the United States. Interestingly, the report also states that the rate of violent crimes has actually decreased, indicating that the number of non-violent prisoners has increased substantially in recent years. This unlikely relationship suggests that there is a flaw in the justice system, as does the increasing rate of incarceration. Is this a sustainable way to maintain social order?
An inherent injustice within the prison system emerges in the following statement made by the Pew Study: “One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.” Such a fact clearly demonstrates a mindset of society that serves to further disadvantage the minority populations of this country. Is it really the case that these racial minorities are committing crimes at a higher rater than their non-minority counterparts? Or, is it the case that they are simply arrested and incarcerated at a higher rate? The latter interferers with the goals of a democratic society—which, again, promise equal rights under the law.
More generally, the Pew Study raises questions about the function of prison in society. The ideal role of prisons in society is to serve as a method of rehabilitation. How is this achieved in an overcrowded and understaffed facility? The average prisoner does not experience a personalized program geared towards admittance into society. Instead, a prison becomes a generic institution, unsympathetic to the individual.
Some might argue that a prisoner does not deserve the rights guaranteed a member of a democratic society. However, a true democratic society should sustain constitutional rights within any context—this should include a state of incarceration. As it stands, a prison does not embody democratic values and in fact, most prisons infringe on basic human rights principles. Groups such as Prison Watch respond to the problematic conditions of prisons in the United States.
If the prisons truly offer rehabilitative services, as they claim, how should society treat “ex-convicts?” As it stands, there is a distinct stigma that surrounds a person labeled an ex-prisoner or more colloquially, an “ex-con.” If it is the law’s task to determine whether or not a specific individual can function safely within society, it should therefore be the responsibility of society to accept such a judgment. By this logic, a released prisoner should retain the rights of a normal democratic citizen. This includes the right to vote. If this right, along with other democratic rights is not restored by law, then we must reevaluate the effectiveness and purpose of a “rehabilitative” prison system.
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