By the end of 2016, 2.2 million individuals were in prison in America (this does not count the numbers in jails), the world’s highest national incarceration rate by far, with .7% of the country’s population incarcerated in state or federal prison at any given time. If the country’s prison population were a city, it would be the nation’s fifth largest, just behind Houston. Our country has a problem.
Mass Liberation is an effort to bring freedom and autonomy to a population of citizens often entrapped by their past, by the coping strategies that their past required them to adopt, or by an unjust system. It is also a response to our country’s culture of detention and justice. In response to mass incarceration: Mass Liberation.
The problem isn’t that our country has that much more wrong behavior than other nations, rather, we have a different response to that behavior. The US criminalizes more behaviors, and systemic cultural problems lead to increased and unjust policing and greater punitive measures. Many social problems contribute to America’s mass incarceration, including: poverty, trauma, mental illness, substandard education and literacy levels, racial and ethnic discrimination, and high recidivism as a result of severe barriers to reentry to society from prison or jail.
A large portion of incarcerated Americans comes from the impoverished portions of the country’s economy. People with little opportunity experience more desperate situations and are also more watched by the police. Individuals with mental illness don’t have much of a support system or access to treatment in many cases, so they end up having encounters with the police and being incarcerated rather than treated. 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a 4th grade level. Race and ethnicity play a powerful role in the justice system as well because we live in a racist society, compounding of course with those struggles mentioned above. 38% of state prisoners are black and 21% are Hispanic, while the racial and ethnic makeup of America’s population is 76% white, 13% black, and 18% Hispanic.
Almost ten percent of incarcerated individuals in the country’s prisons are in the State of California. California has an overcrowded prison system, so overcrowded that the U.S. Courts stepped in to demand that reform happen to improve the inhumane conditions resulting from too many people being locked away in too little space.
An individual’s release from prison does not mean that they can return to a normal life. Since many individuals first entered the justice system without a complete education, without healthy ties to their communities, with substance issues, and without employment opportunities, when they reenter society, they are likely to struggle with these same issues. An individual’s personal relationships have been interrupted by time away from family and community. Individuals who have served long sentences are also facing a world that is alien to them when they get out. They have missed out on major technological developments, changes in basic procedures like job searches and applying for legal ID, and even how to find and store information.
In addition to social barriers, there are many legal and policy barriers facing individuals who have been incarcerated. Many companies have blanket policies that discriminate against any formerly incarcerated applicants. Occupations requiring licensure either automatically exclude or limit those with criminal records. Housing opportunities are also affected by a criminal background, as many landlords will not rent to people with records. Homelessness increases the likelihood of reincarceration, as those without housing have much more frequent contacts with law enforcement and are often the targets of complaints from residents.
As a result of all of the issues described above, there are very high rates of recidivism among America’s released prisoners. In the best study on the subject, over a nine year period, 83% of formerly incarcerated individuals were rearrested.