The American prison system is a world phenomenon, and an ironic one at that. America has the highest prisoner to non-prisoner ratio of any country in the world. How can a country that supposedly represents public service, freedom and due process of law send such a disproportionate amount of people, based on population, race and mental state, to prison? How can such an apathetic attitude toward our prison conditions (which are the worst in the free world) have prevailed this long with no immediate public calls for reform, and possibly be considered functional?
America, partly because its cultural origins come from the peasant populations of several continents, values wealth above all. The emphasis on traits such as accent or ethnicity hardly play a role in America. This, mixed with a lower regard for education, creates an environment where the inequality among people, from the superficial quality of possessions to the freedom to control one's immediate surroundings, is more starkly apparent for the many people born at the bottom than even in the lower middle. Among minority populations that have the least opportunities available to them, the two easiest and most accessible ways to make a profit are to sell drugs and/or steal, which both happen to be illegal.
Basic protocol can make an inmate suffer at every stage of incarceration, including release. In all 50 states, there are laws that inhibit violent and non-violent criminals from getting jobs after a sentence, even jobs that have nothing to do with their crime. Just after 30 days or more, federal disability or Medicaid benefits can be cancelled — and given that our prisons act as de facto mental hospitals in many cases, this is terribly alienating and damaging, causing ripe conditions for more crime.
The ideas of "misdemeanor" and "felony" are familiar ones, but stop to think about how byzantine and ineffectual such a notion is. If our society had its priorities straight, they would be "violent" and "non-violent" crimes instead, and jails would be a controlled environment whose function was to keep violent offenders out of society, while attempting to rehabilitate. The non-violent, then, would be evaluated and rehabilitated as needed. Perhaps most indicative of a problem is the fact that prisons themselves are immune to the laws they are supposed to uphold. Just like in the military, the laws that maintain domestic cultural order stop with both the role of prisoner and guard — the former below the law, the latter above it, often disregarding the mental and physical violence that is allowed to happen.
While many things keep us from examining our prisons and prisoners, the practice keeps us from being reminded of the fundamental truth that people are products of their society — the poor suffer (especially in unequal societies), the suffering are angry and desperate, and those people commit the crimes.
The prison system is one of the starkest examples of another "two sorts of people" in politics: those too complacent with artificial systems and those who seek constant refinement against human error. Be vigilant against ideas that instinctively extend the free-market to other cultural ideas, that an exceptionally free culture is defined by these inequalities. That the human indexes in other developed countries — from education to income gaps to mental health — soar above our own, but maybe that's the price of true freedom. That more may fall through the larger gaps of risk, but that risk ensures the highest quality of life for those who deserve it, ostensibly by earning it. Fairness isn't an issue that concerns those who benefit from the lack thereof. The matter of whose womb you come out is your own, just try and leverage that in any meaningful way, aside from your welfare pittance.
It is said that men are created equal, not born that way — concerning yourself with this reality is the only policy guide you need.
— Wiley Robinson is a senior in ecology and evolutionary biology. He can be reached at email@example.com.