Far-Reaching Prison Reform Must Be Part of Racial Justice Movement

Despite our self-identification as a country teeming with liberty, we harshly cast those incarcerated--who are disproportionately people of color--to the margins and subject them to a range of indignities, from physical abuse to essentially unpaid labor. (Photo: Derek Goulet/cc/flickr)

Far-Reaching Prison Reform Must Be Part of Racial Justice Movement

The systemic racism and brutality of the criminal justice system extend far beyond police misconduct.

The death of George Floyd has prompted rightful fury and mass protest across the country. Police brutality against communities of color has persisted for far too long, and meaningful reform -- not mere platitudes and the promise of future action -- is now required.

Unfortunately, the systemic racism and brutality of the criminal justice system extend far beyond police misconduct. Despite our self-identification as a country teeming with liberty, we harshly cast those incarcerated -- who are disproportionately people of color-- to the margins and subject them to a range of indignities, from physical abuse to essentially unpaid labor.

Nothing has highlighted this marginalization more graphically than the COVID-19 outbreak. As many Americans take shelter from the pandemic in the comfort of their homes, more than 2 million individuals are trapped in the U.S. incarceration system, waiting for the virus to infect them.

Horror stories of infected cruise ships may have captured the public imagination, but incarcerated individuals have it far worse. Social distancing is nearly impossible in jails and prisons. While cruise ship cabins typically comprise over 70 square feet of space per person, correctional facilities can provide as little as 25 square feet per person and dozens may share the same toilets and showers with severely restricted access to hygiene products.

Much attention has been paid to cities with COVID-19 hotspots. But few know that there are more COVID-19 cases connected to the Marion Correctional Institution in central Ohio than any other institution in the United States. By late April, nearly 80 percent of those incarcerated had tested positive.

Cory Dodrill, who is serving time at the facility, told NPR that there is hardly concern for those who get sick: "(Several older men with COVID-19) didn't get any help until either they were hyperventilating, struggling to breathe, or falling out of their rack screaming for help."

According to data from the New York Times, six more of the top 10 clusters of cases in the United States are connected to prisons or jails.

COVID-19 outbreaks are particularly worrisome in prisons and jails. The ACLU reports that an astounding 40 percent of incarcerated individuals have at least one chronic health condition, increasing the risk of complications from the virus. And the percentage of people in state prison who are 55 years of age and older has grown dramatically since 2000.

Mistreatment of prisoners accepted

Why many turn a blind eye to this suffering is a complicated question. The United States has a long history of prisoner mistreatment, so there is a degree to which this situation has been normalized. And our culture's belief that incarceration is punishment not rehabilitation--inflamed by politicians using racially charged, tough-on-crime rhetoric to stoke fear and resentment-- is certainly a major factor. But so too is the way we systematically remove political rights from incarcerated individuals.

For example, all but two states have restrictions on voting rights for those who have been convicted of felonies. Some, for example, reinstate voting rights upon release from prison. Others restore the franchise only after the terms of a sentence are fully completed, which can encompass probation and parole. A group of states go even further, barring some or all of those convicted of felonies from ever voting again --unless reprieve is granted. (Maine and Vermont allow those incarcerated to vote.)

In all, millions of Americans are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. And for those that retain their voting rights, like those in local jails, it can be difficult to obtain a ballot, so few actually vote.

Voting alone will not end the cruelty of our incarceration system or ensure that Black lives actually matter. But in a democracy, the right to vote is a recognition of personhood-- of the worthiness to have some control over one's future. It signals whose opinions matter and who counts.

Incarcerated Americans living in unsafe conditions currently have no power to protect themselves, for, in addition to having had their freedom revoked, they have no representation. By expanding our democracy to empower all voices, those most at-risk will have at least some avenue to be heard and our society may be able to prevent future tragedies within the incarceration system.

So in addition to fighting for early release and making incarceration conditions more humane, we must also end felony disenfranchisement laws -- something that should not be controversial given their deep Jim Crow era roots. We likewise need to ban prison gerrymandering, the practice of counting incarcerated individuals at their prison's address for redistricting purposes instead of where they lived before incarceration, which artificially inflates the political power of white, rural areas across the country.

Register prisoners to vote

On top of this, we must immediately expand outreach to formerly incarcerated people who are currently eligible to vote but have not registered. This would involve educating these citizens about their rights, helping them navigate the complex voting laws, and, in states with post-incarceration enfranchisement, distributing voter registration applications upon release.

Those who have experienced the inner workings of the incarceration system understand the concerns of those currently within it and can play a vital role in our political discourse. Additionally, wherever there are eligible incarcerated voters, voter registration forms should be made available and easily returnable (the registration process could even be made automatic). Vote-by-mail ballots can then be mailed to those who are registered.

So too can we empower those incarcerated through democracy vouchers, a novel form of public campaign financing that gives every registered voter money that they can allocate to eligible political campaigns. In our current campaign finance system, those who can contribute become the most powerful constituents. Democracy vouchers change the incentive structure of fundraising by making every American a potential donor, greatly expanding who has power.

Some may be uncomfortable with the proposals outlined above, particularly the final one. But the death of George Floyd and the COVID-19 crisis have laid bare uncomfortable truths about American life and the cruelties and racism of the criminal justice system. Expanding political representation, democratizing political power and continuing to protest to overhaul inhumane policies are the least we can do to safeguard against the atrocities defining the status quo.

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