Freedom and Mass Incarceration: The American Paradox

“For a country that prides itself on freedom, we have the highest incarcerated population in the world. We are a contradiction to ourselves and the very values we claim to represent.”

Ashten O. Gray
Image by Tayeb MEZAHDIA from Pixabay

I quoted my husband here first as he inspired me to write about this during a one-on-one discussion we had on the topic. Freedom, what is your perception of the concept? Is it a beautiful fantasy that we have been enthralled by from the time of our founding fathers, or is it a real-life experience for you? What does freedom look like through your eyes? Are we even aware of our reality, or is it simpler to remain ignorant of the bigger picture?

In my worldview, I do not see freedom, I see a disturbing picture of our American journey here that is encased in genocide and slavery. When Americans scream and celebrate how free we are as a nation, I see the multitude of Americans silently screaming for theirs behind bars, I see the Americans weighed down by chains as they attempt to move about their daily lives under the confines of supervision. It is a simple and happy idea to think we live in the freest country in the world, but is that reality or just a beautifully played-out delusion?

I love my country, so much so that I choose to see it for what it is and still believe it is capable of great things, even if it hasn’t done anything worth being labeled great so far. That is what patriotism means to me. When you love someone or truly care about them they hold a special place inside of you. You try to see all of what makes them who they are, you see their experiences, their choices, faults, and all, and you try your best to understand and be there to help as a part of their growth.

Mass Incarceration in the U.S.

We have this major paradox in the United States where we pride our country on being the freest in the world, yet we have the highest number of incarcerated individuals worldwide. What’s also shocking here is that even though the U.S. makes up only roughly 5% of the world population, we have nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. Right now as I’m writing this we have over 2 million people in prison and jail and about 4.3 million people who are under some form of correctional supervision (i.e., probation and parole).

Jail facilities are placed throughout the United States in all counties but are doing nothing to actually increase public safety or well-being, instead, it seems their main function is to continue helping mass incarceration thrive. We are wasting trillions of tax dollars on what are essentially human depositories that were never built or used to rehabilitate individuals who are rejoining their communities and society. Rather than be rehabilitated, incarcerated individuals are facing wage, job, and housing losses, a decrease in physical and mental health, and the possibility of losing custody rights of their children. They are being jailed for the most minor of offenses, told they are criminals, and in a self-fulfilling prophecy end up becoming conditioned to believe and act as how they are viewed by society and the system.

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

We could dive even deeper into the reality of incarceration as a business including our bail system, recidivism rates, the capitalization in privatization, and the incarceration of adult and children immigrants. Overall, mass incarceration has led to overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions, poor hygiene, lack of ventilation, inadequate medical care, as well as serious medical conditions, opioid use disorders, and overdoses among inmates which also has left the incarcerated population highly vulnerable during the pandemic.

What brought us here?

Our modern-day prison labor is historically rooted in the 13th Amendment which has also further incentivized mass incarceration in the United States. In its very own wording, we can see that slavery was never truly abolished, it was only reenvisioned, and this concept of freedom that we honor and pride ourselves on is not our true history or current reality. If you would like to learn more about the root causes of mass incarceration I highly recommend watching this YouTube video that gives a great overview of the problem, where its roots lie in the ’60s and ’70s, and how America culturally and systematically built mass incarceration.

Why America Throws the Poor in Prison, by The Gravel Institute

Academic evidence suggests that Prisons make people more likely to engage in criminal behavior, not less.

Chase Madar, professor of law at NYU Gallatin

It starts at home

What we have in America is not sunshine and rainbows of freedom, but a mass incarceration crisis. Somehow still, over 60% of American adults have said they believe courts are not dealing harshly enough with criminals. When will be the breaking point of when we turn from the blinding mindset that criminalization and incarceration are here to benefit us or make our communities safe and come to see the reality of how much harm and wreckage they have continued to cause?

There is a wide range of solutions, including these 4 reforms produced by the ACLU:

  • “Eliminate incarceration as a penalty for certain classes of low-level, nonviolent offenses.”
  • “Strengthen cost-effective alternatives to incarceration and drug treatment programs.”
  • “Distinguish between the people currently in prison who continue to pose threats to safety and those who are ready to re-enter society.”
  • “Require regular, systemic evaluations of our criminal justice system.”

Ultimately, it starts right here at home and in the self. It starts with Americans learning to see outside of our own worldview and then deciding it’s important enough to change it and become a part of that change by helping our country, communities, and fellow human beings heal and grow. It begins by realizing who exactly is getting caught up in this system and how close you may actually be to being victimized by it. The truth is that freedom is subjective and the American idea of freedom cannot exist when opportunity and humanity are stripped of its very own people. If we do nothing, we will stay in this perpetual state of self-fulfilling prophecy by allowing mass incarceration to exist and grow.

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