The idea of prison and those who are in prison has long ago been written off by society. We see all prisoners as criminals, and give almost no concern for what they go through in the depths of prison. We live in a country where we are told to trust the justice system completely and blindly, and most of us do, because we have no idea there is a reason to mistrust this justice system. We assume, with a sad naïveté, that through the system of checks and balances and regulation, that the justice system has no other choice but to be fair and balanced. Unfortunately, in the realm of realism, that is far from how our justice system works, and instead of allowing the perpetuation of stereotypes of who these prisoners are, it’s time that we dissected who they really are, and why this system has gone so askew.
Prison is where we send offenders to be once they have committed a crime. It is punishment for what they have done, as well as a site for rehabilitation. Prison, in its foundation was meant for war prisoners, captured in battle. These prisoners still had some type of rights, and after a certain amount of time, some of them would be released.
U.S. prisons have always been shaky. They, too, used to capture war prisoners, and through that, they would gain free and cheap servants. They figured out a way to exploit these captured people in order to use them for work that they desperately needed when the use of indentured servants began to die out. This was utilized in the early days of the colonies, and it was later replaced by the system of American chattel slavery.
Slavery began in the 1600s and lasted until the late 1800s with the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. with that came the reignited need for the free and cheap labor in order to keep the remaining plantations and areas functioning. Thus, there was a loophole built into the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery and indentured servitude, except as punishment for a crime. This rule was utilized all throughout the former Confederacy and even the Union areas, and targeted former black slaves. They used a heightened sense of policing for black people and other minorities and they were arrested for seemingly minor charges. This practice has not only continued, but has evolved and expanded over time.
Today, mostly minorities make up the prison population, despite the fact that people of all races commit crimes at about the same rate. This is the gist of the system of mass incarceration. Many of these offenders are in for a long time for nonviolent crimes, such as possession of marijuana. And committing crimes are not acceptable in this society with rules, the things that make these crimes are starting to change. A lot of these drugs that are currently forbidden come from the Clinton administration when he made the War on Drugs such a big part of society. This War on Drugs was used to perpetuate the stereotype of minorities using drugs, while when looking at the data, once again, people of all races and cultures use drugs at around the same rate.
Now, I am certainly not saying that there aren’t any people who deserve to go to prison. There are many who do. But the way we generalize all the prisoners and reduce them to the lowest criminals is really harmful and counter productive. These prisoners are sent to prison to be rehabilitated so that they can come out into society and not make any more offenses. Yet someone’s status as a prisoner brands them permanently as a social pariah. We continue to judge these people, while not providing any services to aide them both in and out of prison. We believe these people of being monsters, while at the same automatically passing judgement.
The society we live in says that these people put these people in these situations and therefore deserve these terrible conditions. We dehumanize these prisoners and see them as less than us, and less deserving of the right of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.
Prisoners are human, too, and they don’t start out as criminals. In fact many of them actually aren’t. They start as your brother, sister, mother, father, uncle, aunt, cousin, friend. They have lives too, they have families and feelings, and desires and goals. Instead of automatically dehumanizing prisoners, let’s take a look at the more nuanced side of the situation and not necessarily take the government’s word.