Despite what you’ve seen of the lighthearted antics of the fictional prisoners you’ve seen on Netflix’s original show “Orange Is the New Black,” the show touches on a serious issue in America today: The prison system needs reforms, and the prisoners are suffering for it. The U.S. prison system is one of the worst in the world, but very few citizens know or are concerned about the injustices faced by more than 1 in 100 American adults.
In comparison to correctional systems around the world, America’s is a disgrace. Though the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, we boast more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, with 5 to 7 times more people incarcerated than similarly developed countries like Britain and France. The overpopulation of our prisons is a major stress on the system, making conditions unmanageable for prison security and staff.
Fortunately, American citizens have the power to make prisons much more bearable for everyone involved. Various organizations are stepping up to improve the greater American community through important and crucial works within the prison system. Read on for facts on American prisons and ways you can contribute to one of the most important causes in American history.
Many civilians are aware that violence is a part of incarceration, but few understand the scope of the prisoner-on-prisoner violence and physical punishments that occur behind prison walls. One study found that more than 200,000 inmates are victims of sexual abuse in prison every year, and most of the incidents are initiated by the prison staff — not inmates — yet aside from crass jokes, American citizens are unaware of this injustice.
Additionally, because of the uncontrollable population size in most prisons, guards must rely heavily on unjust methods like solitary confinement to manage prisoners. At any point in the day, more than 80,000 U.S. prisoners are locked away in solitary, deprived of books, television, and sometimes even light; prisoners are fed through a slot in the door, keeping them from human contact for as much as months at a time. This causes untold emotional damage, resulting in unstable people — not docile inmates gracious for their treatment.
Even basic human necessities like food and health care are unreasonable inside prison walls. Often, food served to prisoners is purchased through private contractors looking to use the prison system to make a profit; thus, in efforts to cut costs, many prison food providers deliver low-quality ingredients with little nutritional benefit. Prison meals have even been known to run out of food, so some prisoners leave meals hungry, or else serve meals filled with maggots. Prisoner health care is also provided through private companies, which has lowered costs but increased deaths due to poor treatment. One inmate even reported prisons using sugar from McDonald’s to disinfect her wounds.
On top of these violent and unjust conditions, prisons do little to aid prisoners in their attempts to reform their previous lifestyles and return to civilization with a practical plan. More than two-thirds of American prisoners commit another punishable crime within three years of their release, demonstrating that prisons are simply failing to achieve their purpose at teaching criminals right from wrong.
Some U.S. prisons allow select few inmates to participate in programs that will eventually grant them advanced degrees. These programs have been shown time and time again to reduce the likelihood of recidivism by creating a place for the inmate outside of the prison. Additionally, with violent offenders, re-education programs targeting unwanted behaviors have been demonstrated to change an inmate’s attitude significantly better than solitary confinement. Still, these programs have yet to see any widespread acceptance among American prisons.
Fortunately, more than one non-profit organization has stepped up to aid prisoner rehabilitation efforts. Many of these organizations take donations of all sizes to benefit their various causes — from sending books to inmates, to instituting complete education programs within prison walls — and it’s only becoming more and more obvious that these charities need all the help they can get. Consider donating an old, unused vehicle or research other ways you can help these non-profits today. Even companies can become involved in the fight against prison injustice by donating resources they specialize in or sending volunteers to visit with inmates.
Another way you can make a difference in the lives of prisoners is by becoming involved in local and federal politics. Write a letter to your local congressman explaining your concern about the conditions in your state prison and any nearby federal penitentiary. Join a group campaigning for change, and try to build awareness among your family and friends. American prisoners may have broken the law, but that doesn’t mean the law should break them; step up and fight for prisoners’ rights.