Incarceration in America

I spent three years teaching young men between the ages of 16 and 18 in a public high school run by the New York City Department of Education on Rikers Island, one of the world’s largest penal colonies. Because Rikers is a jail, all of my students were awaiting trial. Most of them had been accused of selling drugs or robbery, but there were car thieves and the occasional murder suspect as well.

What amazed me was that most of my students were good kids (which I know doesn’t make sense to many people; my hope for this blog is to make it make sense). Moreover, just about every single one of them was highly intelligent. Putting a wall between them and society is not only a waste of taxpayers’ money: it is a waste of these students’ talent. The thing to remember is that most of them grew up without much guidance at home.

Teaching out there was definitely the most rewarding segment of my teaching career, but in another way it was the most depressing. Knowing that most of my students were on their way to Upstate New York where they would face time in state prisons with adult inmates was difficult to deal with. After three years, I was ready to move on.

It was during my time out there that I became aware that political leaders in this country care only about people with power, and incarcerated men and women are absolutely powerless. American politicians are abdicating their responsibility with regard to incarceration. Not only does this country have the highest rate of incarceration: we also lock our men and women in privately run prisons. There is no end in sight. This attitude of “lock them up” has had an impact on our thinking. Over time, the meaning of the word “justice” has changed. While its main definition used to be “fairness,” slowly it has morphed into “punishment.”

I have written a memoir about my experiences on Rikers that was published by Deerbrook Editions. The title is The New Plantation: Lessons from Rikers Island. Here is a section from the Epilogue:

“America continues to have the world’s highest rate of incarceration (ROI) by a long shot: while the US has only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s incarcerated population.

“According to the Prison Policy Initiative, thirty-one of our states have higher ROIs than any country in the world. That agency claims further that the state with the lowest ROI—Massachusetts—has a higher rate than all but nine countries in the world.

“It’s interesting to consider those nine countries: after El Salvador comes Turkmenistan, Cuba, Thailand, Rwanda, the Russian Federation, Panama, Costa Rica, and Brazil. Note how little in common the country we claim to be has with those nine countries, all of which are either dictatorships or have been destabilized by corruption. And though they are our primary competition in the race to lock people up, we are winning that race without breaking a sweat.

“Other industrialized democracies have rates that are far lower than ours: for instance, France, Canada, and England/Wales lock up fewer than 150 of their citizens per 100,000. Norway, Germany, and Italy lock up fewer than 100, while the numbers for Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and the Netherlands are below 60. And then there is Japan that locks up just 45 of its people for every 100,000—that’s 6.4% of our 698.

“We call ourselves the “Land of the Free,” but we are also the land that deprives more people of their freedom than any other. And most of those people are minorities.”


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