The American prison system is racist and outdated, it rehabilitates and educates nobody, and it must be torn down and rebuilt. I know. I spent nearly two years in prison for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s illegal torture program, and I got a front row seat for everything that is wrong with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The United States has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. In both raw numbers and on a per capita basis, that’s more than any other country in the world, including Russia, China, and even Iran. That’s not something to be proud of; it’s something to be ashamed of. And Americans should demand that Congress change our draconian sentencing laws immediately.
Why do we have so many people in prison? It’s simple. We have drug laws that offer no chance of help, treatment, or rehabilitation. If you sell drugs, no matter the amount, you’re going to do real prison time. I’m not talking about a few months in the county jail. I’m talking about mandatory minimum sentences of between 10 years and life.
In the 1980s, Congress passed a series of mandatory minimum sentencing laws in an effort to standardize sentencing across the country. This, in effect, took sentencing discretion out of the hands of individual judges and put it in the hands of Congress. That, coupled with “law and order” politics, made for some of the harshest drug sentences in the western world.
Congress panicked during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and enacted exceptionally harsh crack laws. They did not, however, change sentences related to powdered cocaine. Consequently, where a kilo of powdered coke may get you three years, a kilo of crack cocaine will get you 30 years.
And that’s not even the worst part. Congress panicked during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and enacted exceptionally harsh crack laws. They did not, however, change sentences related to powdered cocaine. Consequently, where a kilo of powdered coke may get you three years, a kilo of crack cocaine will get you 30 years.
Like I said, the system is racist; powdered cocaine is a white man’s drug. In contrast, 79% of 5,669 sentenced crack offenders in 2009 were black, versus 10 percent who were white. The result is African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
To make matters worse, the Bureau of Prisons, which at $7 billion controls one-fourth of the Justice Department’s entire budget, spends not one red cent on rehabilitation or training, and almost nothing on education. If you enter prison with no education at all, you can get a General Equivalency Degree (GED). If you already have a GED or a high school diploma, you get nothing. You can’t learn a skill or a trade in prison, you get no counseling or therapy, and, if you have a drug addiction, your only help comes with a weekly showing of a DVD of the A&E Network’s program “Intervention.” I’m serious. That’s it.
So what does that create in the end? It creates a whole lot of angry, uneducated, unskilled, untrained ex-cons, many with addiction issues, who only know how to sell drugs to make a living. And what do you think they’ll do when they get home? They’ll sell drugs!
The U.S. prison population began to explode in the 1980s and Congress has done nothing about it. Several bills meant to shorten sentences and rehabilitate prisoners died quietly in Congress last year and stand no chance of being enacted into law this year.
Instead of spending $7 billion of the taxpayer’s money every year to warehouse people who will do society no good when released, Congress should shorten sentences and spend the remaining money on training, education, and treatment. Not only would that bring us in line with other industrialized countries, it would create more productive members of society and reduce recidivism.
I’m not optimistic, though. This isn’t a new problem. The U.S. prison population began to explode in the 1980s and Congress has done nothing about it. Several bills meant to shorten sentences and rehabilitate prisoners died quietly in Congress last year and stand no chance of being enacted into law this year. Meanwhile, a 2014 Gallup poll found that only 23 percent of Americans trust the criminal justice system. Shocked? Only seven percent trust Congress.
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