BY KRISTEN NELSON
Although there are as many as six million of them in the United States, prisoners and the system in which they exist often seem invisible to the American public. At an event intended to shed light on this frequently overlooked topic, students gathered on Tuesday night to hear an accomplished panel of three discuss race, class, gender and the prison-industrial complex.
The panel was co-sponsored by the Black Law Students Association and the American Constitutional Society, and featured Clinical Instructor Soffiyah Elijah of the Criminal Justice Institute, Prof. Margo Schlanger, and former prisoner Michael Bonds, Operations Director of BLACKOUTBoston Arts Coll-ective, a group of artists and activists that seek to empower communities of color through art, education and activism.
Discussion focused on the size, scope and demographics of the American prison population, the changing landscape of prison litigation, and possible alternatives and reform movements.
Schlanger began the evening with a graph demonstrating the exponential increase in the American prison population over the past 20 years. She said that though the growth of the American prison population reached a plateau in the last couple of years, the prison population quadrupled between 1980 and 2000, while the general American population increased by only a quarter. At the end of last year, federal correctional facilities were operating at 131 percent of capacity and state facilities were at close to 100 percent.
Elijah estimated that there are currently more than 6.6 million people under some form of correctional supervision in the United States — more than the populations of many countries. The United States currently boasts the world’s highest rate of incarceration: While only comprising 5 percent of the world’s population, it accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
Elijah said the majority of prisoners are young, poor and non-white. Sixty-two percent of the nation’s prison population serving one year or more is African-American or Latino, and ten percent of black men between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine are incarcerated. In addition, women are one of the fastest growing segments of the prison population. Since 1995, the American female prison population has increased 36 percent — 75 percent of whom are in their child-bearing and rearing years.
Elijah noted the profundity of the implications of these statistics for families. The majority of state and federal prisoners have at least one child under the age of eighteen. Seventy percent of state-incarcerated parents do not have high school diplomas and half of them are black. In addition, the majority of American prisoners are housed in correctional facilities over 100 miles from their home communities. Such placements make it difficult for families to visit or even call, due to exorbitant rates charged to prisoners for phone calls.
In addition, added Schlanger, prisoners’ home communities are no longer able to count the displaced for census purposes. Instead, though most cannot vote while incarcerated, prisoners are counted in population tallies for the communities in which they are housed, which are often predominantly white or segregated.
While the effects of the burgeoning U.S. prison population are somewhat tangible and undoubtedly disheartening, the causes are a bit more elusive. Schlanger and Elijah cited a variety of contributing factors, including the profitability of the prison industry, harsh sentencing laws and unequivocal racism.
“Prison is a multi-billion dollar industry,” Elijah said. “Someone is making a dollar off of everything you can think of that is attached to running a prison.” She pointed to the growing trend towards privatizing prisons as another indicator that incarceration is lucrative. In turn, this drives campaign contributions, with the end result that “legislators think the best solution is to lock people up and throw away the key.”
“Three-strikes” legislation and truth in sentencing laws may also be to blame. In many states, as well as the federal system, prisoners are now required to serve 85 percent of their sentence before they can be considered for release. Many states have also abolished discretionary parole. In addition, Elijah cited the increased use of federal conspiracy charges in drug cases, which carry longer prison sentences.
Finally, Schlanger and Elijah both pointed to racism at the heart of incarceration. “If there were a bunch of white kids facing five years in prison for drug charges, the drug laws would get changed,” Schlanger said. Elijah noted that minorities also engage in types of crime that are more frequently policed. For example, they may use drugs in more public spaces than whites in affluent areas, and as a consequence are more frequently detected and arrested.
The two also noted the disparities in sentencing lengths for possession of crack versus cocaine, which is used more by middle and upper class whites. In sentencing terms, possession of one gram of crack is equivalent to possessing 20 grams of cocaine, a ratio Schlanger called “outrageous.”
While the incarcerated population grows and prisons and jails exceed capacity, it has also become increasingly difficult to litigate against the correctional system. According to Schlanger, the 1996 passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) completely altered the litigation landscape for prisoners.
“In 1995, damages actions against prisons were 15 percent of the federal docket,” she said. “Prison litigation is now down 45 percent as a result of the PLRA.” The act, one plank of Republicans’ Contract with America, restricts attorneys’ fees, requires inmates to pay filing fees regardless of indigency, prevents prisoners from filing answers unless judges determine their suits to be non-frivolous and places strict restrictions on recovery.
In effect, the PLRA forced lawyers into defensive mode, Schlanger said. Post-PLRA, any existing injunctive decree against a prison was terminable on a motion by the defendant, unless attorneys could re-prove that the decree was needed.
While Schlanger and Elijiah focused on the larger implications of the prison-industrial complex, Bond spoke of his personal experiences with the criminal justice system, including eight years spent behind bars, a sentence he began serving only months after his daughter was born. He described dehumanizing conditions at the “super-max” prison in which he spent the last few years of his sentence, including enduring 25 months on 23-hour lock-up and finding eggshells and paint chips in his food.
Despite these experiences, upon release, Bond “refuse[d] to become a recidivist.” Although he has encountered difficulties finding and maintaining a job in part due to the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system that makes his ex-prisoner status available to employers, he has gotten his vendor’s license, started a small business and writes poetry on the side.
Panelists fielded questions on topics ranging from the economics of the prison industry to the shift in strategy in prison litigation. When asked about possible solutions to the problem of the burgeoning prison population, Elijiah and Schlanger both noted the importance of bringing the issue to the attention of the American public. “The overwhelming majority of the nation’s population is not aware of what is going on with prisons,” Elijiah said.