The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. America is incarcerating more and more people for non-violent crimes and for acts that are driven by mental illness or drug dependence. Their system is cruel and highly unjust as it consists of racially selective policing, prosecution and mass imprisonment. Since 1970, the US prison population has multiplied more than six times. Mass incarceration is practically invisible as a political issue, even in heavily black communities which suffer most from its implementation. The failure to address this problem has caused prisons to burst with massive overcrowding. The prisons are rampant with violence, physical abuse and hate.
The high prevalence of HIV and drug dependence among prisoners combined with the sharing of injecting drug equipment, make prisons a high-risk environment for the transmission of HIV. This contributes to HIV epidemics in the communities to which infected prisoners return after their release from prison. Overcrowding and lack of resources means that prisoners’ health problems are aggravated rather than alleviated during imprisonment.
Stateville Correctional Centre based in Chicago, Illinois is a state prison for men. Between 1928 and 1962, executions were carried out and the electric chair was used thirteen times at Stateville. Evidently, this prison enforced harsh measures as a form of punishment to deal with drug offenders. The prison was designed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He advocated utilitarianism and was known as the founder of University College London. The way he created this prison was extremely clever and well thought out. The term ‘panopticon’ was coined, meaning that one could observe prisoners without them knowing that they were being watched. Foucault said that “…in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.” This gives the observer power and freedom to watch the prisoner whenever they may wish to do so. Barton says that “…Bentham envisioned…venetian blinds…[and]…maze-like connections among tower rooms to avoid glints of light or noise that might betray the presence of an observer.”
On September the 14th 2010, the prison underwent a thorough examination and investigators found that the prison lacks sufficient resources, thereby causing problems for its inmates. The prison suffers from severe sanitation and hygiene problems. Cockroaches are swarming all over the prison. Warden Hardy has attributed this problem to the fact that the prison’s exterminator has not been able to do his job adequately as the state has failed to pay for his services on time. Moreover, staff are forced to endure long hours, leading to mistakes in the treatment and care of their patients. There is segregation within the prison, isolating the prisoners and straining the staff as they have to handle different sections of an overpopulated prison. Evidently, there are many problems within the prison, but the harsh reality is that no one can fix it. The prison urgently needs to be improved. The worsening state of the prison cannot be ignored any longer. Somebody needs to take action.
Michelle Alexander is a professor of law at Ohio State University. She is the author of the book entitled ‘The New Jim Crow.’ She argues that the drug laws in the USA are strongly racist. It is largely the black population who are victimised and prejudiced.
The mass incarceration of people of colour in America is a true violation of human rights. Black men are labelled as felons for life, largely due to a drug war that has been waged among poor communities of colour. The mother of one incarcerated teenager said “…people of colour have…poor self-esteem because we’ve been branded. We hate ourselves, you know. We have been programmed that it’s something that’s wrong with us. . . . It’s hard, because, we’ve been labelled all our lives that we are the bad people.” Perhaps if more people around the world knew that the United States had re-created a racial caste system by waging a racist drug war, the government would be forced to deal with these racial realities.
We have to reduce incarceration rates and we can only do this through decriminalisation and depenalisation. The widespread incarceration of drug users has been expensive, ineffective and has increased health and social problems, while failing to prevent and deter drug use. The increase of incarceration damages the reputation and good functioning of a country’s criminal justice system. Overloading the criminal justice system with low-level offenders may also weaken its ability to administer justice effectively. Law enforcement interventions and incarceration penalties should be focused on high-level or violent drug offenders. National drug laws should be reformed so that priority is given to the seriousness of the crime. In my opinion, we need to treat drug use as a health problem rather than as a crime and from punishment to treatment for dependent drug users. I think that the incarceration penalties should be removed altogether for low-level drug offenders.