I have looked into the issue of incarceration in the United States before, mostly from the perspective of marijuana legalization.  I knew the ratios of black felons to white felons and the issues of racism in our penal system.  I also knew the direct effects and strains on our economy that having millions of citizens in prison does.  But the talk by Heather Ann ThompsonImage went further.  Past the direct effects that prisons have on our economy, and dives into the peripheral effects on both our economy and our progress as a society.

            My first surprise was the indirect effect of how prisons disrupt the private sector and labor.  Prisoners can easily be paralleled to a new form of indentured servitude where they work for below minimum wage and do so involuntarily.  Call centers and recycling centers can now shift away from companies and towards the government run penal system.  The private sector cannot compete with this in that it must set wages higher and offer benefits such as vacation and sick days.  Jobs that used to stimulate the economy by cycling money through workers and companies now is put straight back into government slowing financial progress.

            The next, and perhaps most shocking, argument against the current system of laws surrounding prisons was the fact that right now 65 million citizens were not allowed to vote in state or federal elections.  The speaker called this “distorted democracy”.  Some of the figures presented were almost too extreme to believe.  For example, in Florida 24% of blacks are not allowed to vote.  A state that is so extremely important to the presidential election, and a state legislature that is often in the national spotlight, completely ignores a large part of their population during elections.  The reason for these ridiculous laws continuing on to today is unforgivable.  Politicians see bringing this issue up as political suicide.  To paraphrase the speaker, at the end of the day the public is worried about loosening the rules that could potentially lead to more crime, though data seems to suggest otherwise.

            Finally the most emotional reason to reorganize the prison system in our nation is that we leave our felons with little options after being released from prison.  After getting out of prison, we have disadvantaged these felons so heavily that sometimes their only option to feed their family is to commit a crime.  Then after they commit another crime, we act surprised that they have not learned their lesson.  Two million children have at least one parent in jail.  The system of laws surrounding our penal system has torn cities, neighborhoods, and families apart.  Our system of laws needs to be heavily restructured in order to not only stop disadvantaging felons but to assist them when they are released from prison.  This will significantly decrease felons recommitting crimes.  This will create a snowball effect that will help our economy, felons’ families, and society in general.

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6 responses »

  1. Matt says:

    These are certainly interesting points. I am curious if, during the talk, any counter-arguments were presented? For example, you talk of hard-to-find employment. I know of at least some prisons that spend sentences trying to teach practical skills found in vo-tech schools or community colleges. I’m not sure how widespread that is but Im assuming that’s what they’re going for. And all that said, would you want to hire ex-felons? Be honest. It’s a terrible thing, but now put yourself in that position and see what you would do. I’m assuming this is what leads to your economical argument, too. Not sure I buy that one, but I’ll acknowledge it.
    You also speak of disenfranchisement. Of course politicians don’t want to bring it up, how much of the public really support this? Again, would you honestly want an ex-convict at the polls? You’re going to march around your neighborhood with a petition to re-enfranchise criminals? This is a long-precedented penalty for violating the laws of society.
    Now I have to agree, if there’s a case where a kid robbed a convenience store once because he fell in with the wrong crowd and now he has no say and his life is ruined, we should try to fix that. But for a large majority of criminals, they made a choice, and they should pay the consequences. And if that results in losing your voting rights, and if you amazingly find it hard for an employer to trust you and hire you, maybe that will deter others. Harsh? Maybe. Prison is supposed to punish and reform. And a slap on the wrist and a free associate’s degree isn’t exactly going to help the country decrease crime, is it?

  2. eric says:

    For the most part, I agree with Matt’s comment. I think that the ability to vote is a privilege – one that has been given to us by generations before who have spilt their own blood to give us a vote. I am not sure exactly what the convict-voting laws are, but I believe it has to do with violent crimes (i.e. not smoking weed). That such a large percentage of Florida’s black population apparently cant vote is, indeed, very sad. I think, however, that you focus on the wrong area. Sure, if convicted of something that they used to kill you for back in the dark ages, that will stay with you and affect the rest of your life. That is, after all, part of the deterrent. I think we should focus more on crime prevention by better educating and supporting our nation’s citizens, rather than making it easier for the generations that have already committed crimes.

    As far as the “racism in the system” goes, I’ll agree, there are still, sadly, regressive areas of America where race plays a role. But, I would suggest that the problem is most likely more socio-economic and cultural, rather than racist (for the most part). Now, that a number of lower income neighborhoods, responsible for a disproportionate percentage of the crime – and therefore incarcerations – have large black populations is another issue – but not automatically racist (as far as I understand the term). More to one of your points, Loukas, the part where you say, “sometimes their only option to feed their family is to commit a crime”… I don’t accept that. There is always another option.

    In addition to the “social good,” Isn’t this why we have food-stamps?

    So no one can claim, I stole to feed my kids.

    As for the vote, I think it’s too easy to vote as it is… but that is a completely different, and slightly more controversial, topic.

    • Loukas T says:

      After reading your comment I looked into voting rights for felons. The rights do vary from state to state and have wide ranges of felon voting rights. The plurality of states (19) allow for felons to vote after they get out off jail, are off parole, and are off probation. 12 states leave the possibility of permanently losing the right to vote depending on a number of factors.
      Food stamps and unemployment aide are also off limits to some felons, again these laws vary state to state.
      As for your final comment about it being too easy to vote, I would love to hear that debate play out in class. I have heard arguments on both sides and I am largely undecided on the matter. It would be interesting to toy with the idea of having to pass a basic political knowledge quiz before being able to vote. Obviously it is doubtful this would ever happen but worth discussing it.

  3. Jordi says:

    TOO EASY to vote?

    “all people are created equal with certain unalienable rights….”

    Why isn’t voting an unalienable right- an essential right- and if it is, it should be as EASY as possible.

  4. Jordi says:

    That is a very thorough review of her talk, and like a week later, so you are a good note-taker or have a good memory.

    I find the use of prisoners as labor that competes with free labor so creepy and barbaric. I have heard of it (actually in an older Michael Moore film, I think).

    I also find private prison corporations creepy. There was a case in PA of a judge of a youth court who was talking bribes to sentence youth to harsher and longer sentences in various privately-owned centers or prisons. Bastard. Life sentence is not enough.

  5. SammyScoops says:

    I definitely agree with you that we are in desperate need of addressing our prison system in particular, the only thing I would add is the fact that if we want prison reform to be effective we should also focus a lot of attention on reforming the discriminatory practices of our justice system in general which serve to proliferate the disproportionate distribution of minorities within the prison population.

    Thanks for sharing

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