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 Thompson 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.