One of the biggest problems in America is with our prison system. We spend over $80 billion dollars a year on prisons and that number will continue to grow. The number of people who are locked up has skyrocketed since the 80’s and doesn’t seem to be coming down anytime soon. There is also a human rights issue with locking people up. These are all problems that can and should be fixed, but many politicians aren’t worried about. So how do we fix it?
The first step is ending the failed war on drugs. 16% of the prisoners in this country are incarcerated for drug related charges. Many of these are for minor marijuana possession or use. A lot are guilty of the three strikes rule that many states have passed. As marijuana usage is becoming more and more acceptable in the United States (it is legal in 4 states and the District of Columbia), it is time we finally admit that the war on drugs didn’t work. If anything, it led to even more problems, especially for minorities who are more likely to be imprisoned than white drug users. And for the inmates on harder drugs than marijuana, is prison really the best scenario for these people? Rather than putting them in prison, we should put them in drug treatment centers. We should be rehabilitating them by cleaning out their systems. We should do this in hopes that they will once again become productive members of society in the future.
The next step is changing the way inmates are treated. We are not rehabilitating prisoners in today’s prisons. Instead we are treating them like outcasts. Locking them in overcrowded prisons with poor nutrition, unsanitary conditions, and very little access to fresh air. Many prisoners come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and therefore naturally have weaker immune systems. Prolonged exposure in these conditions have proven to lead to mental illness, or increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, skin disease, or other sickness they may be exposed to. We should also immediately eliminate solitary confinement. It is cruel and inhumane and should be stopped immediately. Period.
What we should be doing is providing meals that are higher in nutritional value, giving free access to high school GED courses (the majority of prisoners do not have a high school diploma), and providing life and career coaches who will work with prisoners to create a sustainable path one they are released. We should also be working with businesses who will agree to give rehabilitated inmates jobs to help them get back on their feet. While it will certainly not work with ALL prisoners, providing a prisoner with a GED and job opportunity when he is released will greatly reduce the likelihood of him becoming a repeat offender and ending up back in prison.
To feed off of that, we should also eliminate discriminatory housing practices against people who have been convicted of a felony. Rather than focusing on their past, we should be looking at their future. If we are providing rehabilitation services, providing parolees with career planning guides and strategies, and they prove that they are willing to work, they should not be disqualified from living in a certain place because of something they did in the past. The same goes for jobs. Just because someone has a felony conviction in their past, does not mean they can’t be productive workers in the future.
The final step is to stop building new prisons. We have far too many prisons already and should start closing some of them. Once we begin reforming who we are locking up, releasing those who are imprisoned on bogus drug charges or for the third strike convictions, then we will immediately eliminate the problem of overcrowding. With the money that we will be saving, we should invest in housing assistance and job training programs for parolees. The goal of prison should be rehabilitating and preparing inmates to once again become productive members of society. Upon their release, and completion of parole requirements, all rights should be returned to them, including the right to vote.
I understand that this will certainly not be popular with a lot of people; many will say that I’m letting them off too easily. And I know that there are some people who should be in prison for life because of atrocities that they have committed. I’m not talking about those people. I’m talking about the common prisoner. But bare in mind that prison reform if done alone will not be successful. But prison reform along with universal access to preschool education, healthcare, education/career planning in high school, and many other factors I have talked about or will talk about on here, we can begin to change the dynamics of this country. We are on an unsustainable path and we must act now.