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photo & illustration by Matt Metzler

Imprisoning Our Own

by Brett Milam


The delusion that we live in a post-racial panacea is

diluted by the immensity of Americas prison system, the most egregious and continual example of racial disparity in the United States not to mention a centralized environment wherein sexual abuse as well as cruel and unusual punishment go largely undiscussed.

Everyone knows that the United States has the largest prison system in the world. We contain 5% of the worlds population, but 25% of its prisoners; and in fact, nearly 1 in every 107 American adults is behind bars. However, what many may not be aware of is just how disproportionally this system affects black men. Michelle Alexander, author of the provocative book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, states that more blacks are behind bars or under the purview of the justice system now than were enslaved in 1850. Now, I can already see eyes rolling because such a statement seems incongruous and sensationalistic; you cant compare the enslavement of an entire race to criminals being locked up. But lets look at the numbers. For one, while blacks make up 13.6 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 40.2 percent of all prison inmates. Over the years, whites and blacks have used marijuana at about the same rate. Yet blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested for using it than are whites, according to the ACLU. In our nations capital, that number jumps to 7.5-8.5 times more likely. The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that prison sentences of black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes. Statistics, statistics, statistics but what does this all mean? It means disenfranchisement. When you have a felony charge, you cant vote. According to the New York Times, 7.7% of voting-age blacks are not able to vote due to their criminal backgrounds. This ought to change, since being able to vote allows individuals to better acclimate back into public life.

Somewhat surprisingly, Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, has recently advocated for felon voting rights. He said, sure white, brown, black, everyone makes mistakes; but when looking at the prison population, three out of four people are black or brown. Poor, black men are disproportionately targeted by enforcement of the War on Drugs and incarcerated by the justice system despite using at the same levels of whites and despite crime dropping over the years. We cannot ignore these racial disparities. Doing so is at the cost of the moral ground weve been trying to make up since the Civil War and the Jim Crow days. Speaking of that which we cannot ignore: the rampant sexual abuse in prisons. Again, were talking about criminals, so who cares, right? How often, anecdotally, do you hear someone joking about someone getting raped in prison? I know Ive heard it time and again from all kinds of people. But If I asked you who commits the majority of sexual assaults in prison and you responded the inmates, then you would be wrong. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), under the purview of the Justice Department, conducted a series of anonymous studies to determine that 200,000 people were sexually abused in American detention facilities in 2011. And the troublesome part is that these are not isolated incidents, but occur multiple times throughout the duration of ones incarceration. By multiple, I mean there are cases where it has occurred eleven times. Moreover, while abuse happens across all detention facilities, we predominantly find this abuse in juvenile detention facilities. Such a fact should be seen as an unacceptable blight on the United States justice system. Peculiarly, 16 and 17-year-olds in adult prisons were less likely to be sexually assaulted than their peers held in juvenile detention, which seems counterintuitive. We would think that teenagers in adult prisons would be more susceptible to sexual abuse than if they were incarcerated in a facility meant for minors. Perhaps the most striking fact in these studies is that, according to the New York Review of Books, in juvenile detention, boys reported much higher rates of abuse by staff than girls didmost, again, committed by women. This is striking because most people dont see women as perpetrators of sexual abuse. Obviously, though, any rational person realizes that rape by women is just as problematic as rape by men. If one digs through these studies, theyll find that 63% of youth who reported sexual activity


with staff stated there was no physical force or coercion. Many had actually initiated the sexual contact. So, no problem, right? Wrong. In prison, there is a clear hierarchal power imbalance between staff and inmates that negates consent, not to mention the fact that minors are involved. Its also worth mentioning that sexual contact between inmates and staff is illegal in all fifty states. The problem we face, in part, is thus: juvenile detention facilities meant to be a turn-around point for minors on a path toward career criminality are in fact turning minors into hardened career criminals. To correct this problem, we need to reform the way that we perceive detention. Detention should focus on rehabilitation and therapy, rather than punishment. Fortunately, reform aimed at doing exactly that has, according to the BJS, led to a drop in sexual assaults since 2008-2009. Despite this, there is a long road ahead given that some states have still not instituted necessary reforms. The National Survey of Youth in Custody found that 26 juvenile facilities reported no sexual abuse at all, and some of the facilities in this study were located in Kentucky. By comparison, Ohio was listed as one of the worst offenders. Finally, there is the issue regarding the pervasive, cruel and unusual punishment seen in our prisons, often in the form of solitary confinement. Again, anecdotally, people seem to have the perception that being a prisoner is not so bad. Access to television, gym equipment, books and so on must mean that it isnt so bad. Consider, though, the case of Shane Bauer, an investigative reporter for Mother Jones, and one of three Americans held hostage in Iran from 2009 to 2011. After being released, he would later investigate the conditions in Californias Pelican Bay State Prison, which led him to pen a piece for Mother Jones entitled, Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside Americas Prisons. Over 80,000 people were in solitary confinement in the United States in 2005, the last time such data was released. To put the nature of solitary confinement into perspective, the average American walk-in closet measures six by eight feet. The dimensions of solitary cells in California measure 117x 77. Thats quite small for a human being to live in, even before considering the cases where two people are in one cell. Over half of the inmates in those cells have been there for at least five years. One inmate has been there for forty-two years. Plus, the evidence used to send someone to solitary is sketchy at best, as Bauer argued. Being associated with a prison gangeven if you havent done anything illegalcarries a much


heavier penalty than, say, stabbing someone. Association could land you in solitary for decades, he said. The ACLU, Human Rights, The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and others have all said long-term solitary confinement constitutes torture or at least cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, which is prohibited by international law and, of course, our Constitutions 8th Amendment. Ive thrown a lot of information and statistics at you about the racial disparity, the sexual abuse and the cruel and unusual punishment occurring in prisons across the country. So, what does it all mean and what are the solutions? Not many would argue against segregating the most violent offenders away from society. But what we see going on now is largely nonviolent, black offenders languishing in prisons and often being housed in solitary confinement. And when they get out, they face voting disenfranchisement, as well as quelled work opportunities. The solution, in part, then, is to end the War on Drugs, which Ive argued disproportionately targets black men. There is no reason nonviolent individuals engaging in victimless crimes should be incarcerated, largely for marijuana use or possession. From there, the next step is to end the practice of solitary confinement that lasts for fifteen days or more longer than that and its considered torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment by the United Nations. Finally, tackling the problem of rampant sexual abuse in prisons seems insurmountable but there may be hope. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, passed unanimously by the House and Senate, established a zero-tolerance standard for prison rape. States that do not take basic steps to abate prison rape by adopting standards . . . are not entitled to the same level of Federal benefits as other States, the bill read. Some states, like Oregon, have instituted staff training regarding sexual abuse, and it does appear that reports from inmates are on the rise, which is a good sign. Essentially, I would like to see a paradigm shift in our perception of prisoners. We need to recognize that, for the most part, prisoners held in this system are still human beings worthy of our attention, especially when faced with such egregious abuses. Nelson Mandela once said, A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones. On that scale, Id say that the United States, as it currently stands, is failing miserably. BM


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