In a country that continues to grapple with racism, poverty, and militarism, how do we reconcile the need for institutions that house those who are unwell mentally and those who have committed felonies in our country? The question is a reminder of the persistent crisis of people being incarcerated in unsanitary, unsafe, and dangerous environments, where their health and well-being are constantly being threatened due to poor living standards, harassment, and potential violence from other people with which they are imprisoned.
The U.S. has had an issue with incarceration for many decades as we have constantly battled with how we understand crime, punishment, and rehabilitation in the U.S. Per the ACLU, the U.S. is home to more than 2,000,000 prisoners and America houses more than 20% of the world’s prison population.
When you divide the U.S. Prison population down by each demographic, it is expected that 1 of every 3 Black boys will be imprisoned in their lifetime relative to 1 in every 6 Latino boys and 1 in every 17 white boys will be incarcerated. Even as we are having discussions around what incarceration can look like, it cannot be ignored how policing and racial bias have a direct correlation between who is represented in the U.S Prison system.
For some, this may seem like an overstatement but there is not an authentic way to discuss the prison system in America without first highlighting the disparity in policing that allows for the incarceration numbers to be so skewed for one demographic over the other.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Black residents were imprisoned at a rate of 901 per 100,000 by the end of 2021. White residents were arrested at a rate of 181 per 100,000 over that same time span.
What we are facing is a bias in criminality and how crime is reported, solved, and arrested in America, and this is directly impacting the quality of life of prisoners and the responsibility of the citizen to provide for these jailhouses.
According to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute (GBPI), Governor Brian Kemp proposed a $1.27 billion (about $4 per person in the US) budget for the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC), which is an organization charged with overseeing the Georgia State prison system. It is also documented that Black Georgians make up just 32.6 percent of Georgia’s population; yet Black Georgians make up 59% of the GDC’s prison population.
The numbers, at both the national and state levels, are concerning as we see a concentrated focus in the over-policing of Black and Brown communities in America, which further highlights the disproportionate amount of criminality and violence associated with communities of color while doing almost nothing to fix the economic inequities that are facing these communities as well.
As of 2020, the state of Georgia had more children in poverty than 43 other states according to the Georgia KIDS COUNT data which highlighted that 30% of Black or African American children are living in poverty in Georgia and Hispanic and Latino children are slightly behind at 28%.
In surveying extensive research on this topic, one thing is clear: the criminal justice system conversations should not just be a conversation about crime. It should be a conversation about economics, education, immigration and the lasting effects of racism, slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow. Black and Brown citizens in America, and in the South in particular, are still dealing with the effects of centuries of subjugation and oppression and they are still fighting against a criminal justice system that so often still rejects the humanity of Black and Brown people.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “The roots of racism are very deep in America. Historically, it was so acceptable in the national life, that today it still only lightly burdens the conscience. No one surveying the moral landscape of our nation can overlook the hideous and pathetic wreckage of commitment twisted and turned to a thousand shapes under the stress of prejudice and irrationality.”
The inhumane mass incarceration quagmire is overflowing with manifestations of this hideous and pathetic wreckage.