“Descended into Madness”: Our Mass Incarceration System and How Young People are Going to Fix It

This op-ed piece was first published by the ACLU of Washington as part of their 2018 Youth Essay Contest. The author, IGNITE participant Gracie Anderson, was one of the 2018 winners and gave us permission to republish it here. 

Written law is one of the fundamental features of an organized society—we see written law exemplified across time, immortalized in the Hammurabi Code and the Justinian Code in ancient societies. The Hammurabi Code (and eventually the Old Testament of the Christian Bible) suggested that violation of the law should result in vengeance and retaliation from the victim in its famous advice to take “an eye for an eye.” Later, the Romans began to use prisons as punishment. This included slave labor, metal cages, and chains. During the Middle Ages, Europeans imprisoned people to illustrate their authority and signify royal power. Modern-style prisons were created in London because people no longer felt capital punishment was an appropriate solution for all crimes—this approach was centered around rehabilitation and detainment. Pennsylvania developed its first prison in 1790. Until then, forced labor was used as a deterrent for crime, and mistreatment and cruel punishment ran rampant. Pennsylvania placed prisoners in individual cells, required silence, and forced them to reflect upon their crimes. This was the beginning of the United States’ criminal justice system—and it has since descended even further into madness. My generation must adequately address the problem of mass incarceration, as it is the most pressing civil rights issue facing our society today.

Mass incarceration has its roots in slavery and oppression (as Michelle Alexander writes in "The New Jim Crow" and Bryan Stevenson writes in "Just Mercy"), but another component of our criminal justice system is an obsession with a kind of vindictive retribution. This is demonstrated by our rates of incarceration for nonviolent offenders. On average, 1 in 5 people in state and federal prison are imprisoned for a nonviolent drug offense2. Though these offenses are not a result of direct attacks on American citizens, our criminal justice system still imprisoned people who were not a danger to society. The United States seems to have a very strong conviction that that locking people up will lead to a more democratic and equitable society: we spend $182 billion1 on mass incarceration yearly. As a nation, we are more committed to imprisoning citizens (while simultaneously compromising their rights) than improving our system and strengthening individual liberties.

I’ve seen the negative effects of this system on young people—my parents both work in education administration, and not only have they had to send kids to juvenile detention centers, they also have to aid students in adjusting to life with an incarcerated parent or parents. My mom works as a mental health counselor at a school in Lewis County. At her Chehalis School District elementary school, 60% of students are on free and reduced lunch, and many of the kids feel the effects of incarceration in their own families. She understands the cycle in such a deep and personal way, and is beginning to see it repeat as her students get older—she sees them enter juvie. Sometimes this takes years, and sometimes this happens within their two years at the 2nd and 3rd grade school. My dad, on the other hand, is at a middle- to upper-class K–8 school in Olympia. As a principal, he often handles discipline and provides resources to students and families. Despite their high socioeconomic status, students at his school still experience the ill effects of mass incarceration—while such effects are more pronounced among less privileged groups, they still exist in this community as well. The pervasive aftereffects of incarceration in my household represent a larger American problem that is directly, undeniably related to civil rights and civil liberties.

This larger American problem isn’t rooted in a flaw in the basis for our justice system—the Constitution itself—but rather in flaws in the way that this system has been implemented. Our system was designed to account for and protect the rights of citizens in diverse situations. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to an impartial jury and a speedy trial. Our Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments have clauses that grant due process rights. There are protections for impoverished people (the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment) and against biases in the courtroom (“innocent until proven guilty” is implied in the Fifth Amendment). It is not our system that is flawed, and it would be dangerous to abolish it all. We need legislative adjustments to improve the implementation of our founding principles: laws in place that further ensure the judicial branch is behaving justly. We need reforms to prisons to make them more humane. We need to eliminate the three-strikes rule, which mandates life sentences for three-time violent offenders. We need to reject mandatory minimum sentences, which are often coded to disproportionately punish people of color. We need to require further bias training, which would help mitigate the racism that so many of our criminal justice laws are steeped in. We need to defuse the school-to-prison pipeline, which robs kids of futures. (Eventually, we might eliminate for-profit prisons altogether and release nonviolent offenders.) These are not issues that were inherent in the system; they are things we can solve through our legislative branch.

I will continue to contest that the original foundation isn’t the issue. It is difficult and complicated to pinpoint where the system initially went wrong, but we have the legislative process to adjust and recalculate how to improve it. If we strip our system down to its constitutional infrastructure, we can see that it is not the criminal justice system, but instead its implementation and interpretation, that causes problems. Our rights are trampled upon when mandatory minimum sentences impede judges’ opportunity to give just mercy to a child who is at the hands of the school-to-prison pipeline. When they are required to incarcerate offenders for life due to a third violent crime, infringing on the rights our system is principled upon. When prosecutors are empowered to bully defendants into forfeiting their constitutional protections and guaranteed due process rights for the sake of a plea bargain. Our criminal justice system has morphed into something un-American, something that does not value the liberties of the accused, a racially-disproportionate method of control over the American people. We can only hope that young people, who have witnessed the effects of mass incarceration on all different levels, recognize the values that our Founders infused in our Bill of Rights: justice and protections for the individual must not be infringed upon by widespread irrational fear for public safety. Our uniquely American obsession with retribution did not have its roots in the writings that founded our nation but has been perpetuated by biased legislation and implementation. Young people must rewrite the laws that will uplift our rights and liberties and defend those rendered defenseless at the hands of our criminal justice system.

Works Cited

1“Mass Incarceration Costs $182 Billion Every Year.” Equal Justice Initiative, 6 Feb. 2017, eji.org/news/mass-incarceration-costs-182-billion-annually.

2Wagner, Peter, and Wendy Sawyer. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018, Prison Policy Initiative, 14 Mar. 2018, www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018.html.