I, like so many others, have been touched both personally and professionally by people I know and love that have been drug addicts and have been incarcerated. Approximately 50% of all incarcerations are due to drug offenses.
Drug addiction is not a moral issue, a lack of willpower or an unwillingness to stop. It is a health risk related to significant changes in the brain. We don’t incarcerate people with cancer, heart disease or any other medical problems. We treat them, care for them, support them and provide services for them to help in their recovery. Today, we put drug addicts in prisons that are desperately in need of reform.
Between 1980 and 2008, the country’s incarcerated population spiked from around 500,000 to a high of 2.3 million. This incredible growth gave the United States the dubious distinction of becoming the world’s biggest incarcerator, as well as the only country in the world that imprisons more than one percent of its adult population.
Attention is paid to this fact by the media, writers, lawyers, scientists, researchers, families, and the incarcerated. However, such broad statistics mask the racial disparity that is pervasive in the U.S. Justice system. Racial disparity is rampant among the incarcerated. Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; once convicted, they are more likely to receive stiffer sentences. Black males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. (Georgetown Law Professor David Cole, No Equal Justice).
The percentage of white people in the U.S. is 64%. The percentage of white people incarcerated is 450 per 100,000 people.
The percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. is 16%. The percentage of Hispanics incarcerated is 831 per 100,000.
The percentage of black people in the U.S. is 13%. The percentage of black people incarcerated is 2,306 per 100,000.
There is no question discrimination exists in the justice departments. There are discussions and recommendations for prison reform. In 2015, a bipartisan effort was launched by the Koch family foundations, the ACLU, the Center for American Progress and other organizations to more seriously address criminal justice reform. (Horwitz, Sari (Aug 15, 2015). The Kochs and their partners are combatting the systemic overcriminalization and over-incarceration of citizens from primarily low-income and minority communities. (Horwitz, Sari (Aug 15, 2015). “Unlikely Allies”. Washington Post.).
A Better Way
A growing number of state corrections officials are coming to the realization that the current approach is ineffective, costly, and cruel. Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, cites the nation’s staggering recidivism rate—77 percent of inmates released from state prisons are rearrested within five years. “Once you realize that this system isn’t working well,” he says, “it’s fairly easy to pivot to: ‘How do we do something different?’”
The North Dakota Norway Experiment is a model; a model for radical change in a prison system based on Norway’s prison system. It embraces the Norway philosophy of treating prisoners humanely.
The North Dakota Norway project began devising ways for inmates to earn more freedom—private rooms, shopping excursions, day passes home, and even the right to wear civilian clothes on-site. They also scaled up an existing work-release program so more men could take real jobs. The offsite real jobs are important for skill training, education, and to provide income for the prisoners. How else are they able to save money for housing, food, transportation and immediate necessities once they are released?
The opportunity of having available high school and college education as well as vocational training is a key to decreasing the recidivism rate. Since the new policies were put in place, prison officials report sharp declines in inmate violence and threats against staff, and also in the use of force by staff against inmates. “When the environment feels less aggressive and contentious,” Jackson says, “you’re safer.”
Prison reform is beginning, but it has a long way to go. We as Americans need to take responsibility for demanding change. We need to be activists, contact our representatives, and we need to vote.