Why You Should Care about the Broken US Prison System

I worked in food production for what felt like an eon in the early to late 2000s. It was a startup, and like any startup, it was strapped for cash and we had to work with older machines.

From this experience, I learned a simple yet valuable lesson: when working with or on machines (or with any system), look at what they are producing, and you will be able to determine the health of that particular system.

Numerous times we would have exploding bottles of milk or various other products when the machines were set up improperly, and the reality of the health of the machine would quite literally wash all over us.

The United States prison system is like one of those improperly set up machines, and the fruit of that poorly set up machine, (ie largest prison population in the world, inmates coming out as career criminals, disproportionate racial disparity, etc.), could explode in all of our faces.

The Setup

The US prison system started as a family business with the colonial prison warden living at the site of the prison with his family and the prisoner “staying” in what amounted to a fortified room and paying the warden for board.

To be honest, the prison in the Colonial-era was not a literal “thing”: ” Fines, whippings, the stocks, the pillory, the public cage, banishment, capital punishment at the gallows, penal servitude in private homes—all of these punishments came before imprisonment in British colonial America.” The function of the jail during colonial times was nothing more than a “pit stop” on the way to sentencing or to punishment.

After the Revolutionary war and at the beginning of the 1800s, the system was reformed and moved away from corporal punishments and humiliation to a more “humane” incarceration and forced labor. This was a move in the right direction, considering that the alternative was the barbaric practice of the colonial era which many at that time considered to be harming the population more than benefiting it.

As Thomas Eddy, a penal reformer of the era, put it, ”The mother country had stifled the colonists’ benevolent instincts, compelling them to emulate the crude customs of the old world. The result was the predominance of archaic and punitive laws that only served to perpetuate crime”.  This quote rings a bit ironic considering what the next 150 years of the American prison system became. 

The next 150 years of prison system history had some honest effort at reintegrating inmates, albeit “clunky and hamfisted” at best, such as the Auburn and Pennsylvania systems practices that would make medieval dungeons feel like walks on the beach. There were some echos of the barbarism of the “motherland” paired with cruel and unusual punishments and attempts to resurrect slavery all balled into this microcosm of American culture.

The truth of the matter is that at the core of all this “setup“ was a reactionary attempt to “fix”, by means of isolation and torture, these people who had violated our social norms and hope they somehow would feel penitent enough to want to, and be able to, reintegrate into “normal” culture.

The Wrench in the Works

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not one of those people who adhere to the idea that the US is racist and full of white supremacists at this point. I am a Latino/American who moved to the US after living in my home country for 20 years. I have seen racism and xenophobia, and it wasn’t in the US. What is still seen in the US is the healing of wounds that were caused by racism, where both sides are still tender with hate and guilt, but mending is happening, and the wound is no longer gaping.

This doesn’t change the fact that racism was a wretched fiber woven through the beginning of this country’s history, and that it played a major role in the prison system. The prison population in the early 19th century in the north was disproportionately freed blacks, and since slavery was still in place in the south, blacks who were convicted of serious crimes in the north could be sold back into slavery. 

The period after the Civil War brought new challenges in the penal system, this time in the South. After the war, many Confederate veterans became policemen in the South. This, along with the push to maintain the southern way of life, and many other socio-economic issues in the South, caused the deck to be stacked against African Americans and created an unbalanced population in the prison system of the time.

Diversity in northern prisons didn’t really change, either, a fact explained at the time with the insane notion that the disproportionate amount of blacks and foreigners in the prison system was due to their ”inherent depravity and social inferiority”.

Speed Kills

Fast forward to the latter half of the 20th century, the prison system seems to be coming out of the dark ages, with the shutting down of the last prison farms in Arkansas we then proceed to throw gas on the fire.

With the large part drugs played in the culture of the 1960s, the government decided that drugs were “Public enemy #1” and that something needed to be done about it. So in 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act came into play and then in 1973 the Drug Enforcement Agency was created. We had a “cause“, an army, and things went downhill from there.

Sentences on non-violent drug-related offenses were punished with prison time and there was a general “no tolerance” attitude towards anything drug-related. The implementation of these hardline policies caused the prison population to skyrocket to 4.5 times what it was in the 1970s, putting many nonviolent offenders behind bars.

In addition to the spike in prison population that these policies caused, it affected the race of the prison population as well. Today the US accounts for about 5% of the world’s population, but “boasts” almost a quarter of the world’s prison population. Of that massive population of inmates, one in three are black Americans.

While African Americans make up 14% of the total population of the United States, they represent 40% of the prison population.

The error in focus, mistaken ideologies, and short-sighted policy has turned the US prison system into a hellscape.  Serious attention is needed in so many areas that change might seem like a pipe dream, but we owe it to the people who have been affected by this broken system.

If we look at the issue honestly, reducing a person to living in a “cage” with a bunch of other people stigmatized as criminals as a means of reforming them might not be the smartest thing ever. The truth of the matter is that the setup of this system was wrong from the beginning.

  • US prisons were not built to reform, but to isolate individuals who were deemed problematic.
  • As a society, we’re indoctrinating inmates to believe they’re not good enough to be in society anymore.
  • Inmates are forced to dress differently, reduced to numbers, and on top of that, put with others who have also been taught the same things, creating an us-vs-them situation.
  • Incarceration is basically like dropping an atom bomb not just on an inmate’s life, but also on his family, especially for low-income families.
  • We have had this system for more than 240 years and to be honest it seems to be FUBAR we are not helping the people that need help the most.
  • When people get out of the prison system they are marked for life. Good jobs are super hard to find for people who have served time. They are essentially doubly cast out of society.

The prison system started out broken, began to move in the right direction, but was subsequently thrown off a cliff after being lit on fire. (At least that’s the picture it paints in my mind.)

The goal needs to be changed to helping these individuals reintegrate into society, and our society needs to be re-educated and shift our paradigm in order to help our fellowman move forward in a way that benefits all of us.

Education, understanding, love, and healing will prove to be better reformers than isolation and dehumanization.

Why you should care about the broken prison system

*David for Tico + Tina














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Tico & Tina

David & Christina are recovering "lack" addicts who share tidbits of their minimalist, digital nomadic life at The Liberation Collective.