Different Strokes: The Function of Mass Incarceration Activists in the United States and Abroad (April)
In April 2019, the Rights Writers discussed the role of advocacy groups and social movements in promoting human rights and social justice in their area.
The life of a Californian Fire-Fighter is worth just $1 an hour if they are volunteering as an inmate of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Regular fire-fighters of the state make at least $10.50 an hour but there is a disconnect in the value of an inmate’s life. It is instances such as these that make the prisoners question if their role as an inmate functions as that of a modern-day slave. Additionally, inmates at the Lee Correctional Institute in South Carolina began one of the country’s largest “Nationwide Prison Strikes” history to raise awareness of the horrific conditions of the American prison justice system, as well as racist police practices to unjust sentencing laws.
Despite making up roughly 5% of the global population, the United States has nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. The incarceration population has increased by over 700% since 1970, with over 2.3 million people in jail or prison today; outpacing population growth and crime. The crime rate intensifies by demographic as well. One out of every three black boys can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, compared to 1 out of six Latinx boys, and 1 out of 17 white boys. To combat such alarming rates, organizations including the NAACP, ACLU, and Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) are advocates for prison reform. Each organization works to combat racial disparities, harsh sentencing, and mandatory minimum sentences by using education, policy, and their political platform as a means to protest and advocate for the issue.
There have been world-wide efforts to combat mass incarceration in a similar fashion to what the NAACP, ACLU, AND EJI have achieved. The fight on mass incarceration has been so widely regarded as an issue that as of 2015, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council has formally adopted the first-ever UN report on mass incarceration. The council expressed concern about the negative impact of over-incarceration and over-crowding on the enjoyment of human rights”. Overall, the human-rights based approach outlined by the UN stressed the investment of crime prevention and rehabilitation efforts, including behavioral therapy, intensive treatment for mental health and substance abuse, and preventive programs can deliver crime reduction without destroying lives and families.
Countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and South Africa do not share the same prison circumstances as that of the United States itself because of their overall structure and approach to punishment. These countries have already committed to addressing the issue of mass incarceration following a similar format that was outlined by the United Nations. The American criminal justice system is known to be based on punitive punishment. In comparison, the German and Dutch prison system focus on rehabilitating inmates. These facilities are described as spacious with moderate temperatures and good light to mirror that of a rehabilitation center. The Dutch prison system is described as “therapeutic” and Germany’s Prison Act states that “the sole aim of incarceration is to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release.” Unlike the United States, the Netherlands and Germany use long mandatory minimum sentences far less often than the United States does. On average, inmates in the Netherlands and Germany spend less than a year in prison and are described to have a “fair amount of control over their daily lives” as described by the Vera Institute. These inmates get to wear their own clothes, work, takes classes, have privacy in their cells, and even have the right to vote and receive welfare benefits. Some inmates in the Netherlands can even “report” to prison during the week and spend the weekends with their families.
South Africa is an example of a nation that was more unjust but has pushed for change in recent years. Wrestling with the legacy of apartheid, South Africa uses faith, confrontation and family in their justice system. South African Prisoners Organization for Human Rights (SAPOHR) works to make substantial strides to improve the criminal justice system of South Africa. By design, their mission is to “address the legacy of the apartheid criminal justice and prison systems and contribute to a culture of human rights and social justice in a non- racial, non-sexist democratic South Africa.” This coalition contains over 10,000 individuals, with the majority being prisoners and many who are ex-prisoners. Additionally, a 2004 White paper on Corrections sought to create a “ strategic policy and operational framework that recognizes corrections as a societal responsibility, and aimed to refocus efforts to make prisons places of rehabilitation and reform.” Though South African prisoners still continue to face some injustices, advocacy groups and policy initiatives have played a major role in attempting to improve the quality of life of prisoners.
Each advocacy organization in the United States holds the strength of a massive fact-based following that uses factual information to impact the representation, resources, and rights of marginalized communities. The US is making the right strides to approaching a criminal justice system centered on human rights, but they are missing the means to directly impact the quality of prison life as they must first challenge the institutional structure. The challenge for American prison groups to apply the strategy is more difficult because these prisons function as a multi-billion dollar business in the United States. Therefore, we cannot directly translate the methods of other countries because we have to deal with the challenge of dismantling a for-profit prison structure that thrives on the free or cheap labor of inmates; threatening the massive income that these companies make. Additionally, American organizations have a limited approach because only agents of political capital can be directly involved in contributing to change, with all other supporters serving as activists for the cause. Though this is difficult to change, a greater emphasis on grassroots organizers and the involvement of prisoners themselves in the movement will help to bridge the gap between political agents and social advocates of the cause.