National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 23, 2003

Flawed prison system hurts us all

The figures are staggering.

In the United States, 6.6 million people -- one in every 32 U.S. residents -- is in jail, on probation or on parole; 3,692 are on death row; 2 million are in U.S. prisons. That’s 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

We have more prisons, prisoners, supermax prisons, more prisoners in solitary confinement, more judicial executions and longer sentences that most other countries.

We’re leading the world in the wrong categories.

Something’s wrong -- and the reformers are gathering to do something about it. Our May 2 issue carried a cover story about a meeting of about 100 reformers in San Antonio to discuss the burgeoning “prison industrial complex.” National and state legislators have used the threat of crime (even during periods of decreasing crime) to justify constructing nearly 1,000 new jails and prisons since 1980.

Last week’s issue carried the first in a series of stories centered on a recent gathering of 2,000 activists under the banner “Critical Resistance South: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex.”

If the situation throughout the country is distressing, it is most acute in the South, where incarceration rates exceed the national average by 12 percent. In coming weeks NCR will explore alternatives to the current system as well as an extensive initiative by Catholic bishops throughout the South, urging change in a prison industry that seems out of control.

The system is seriously flawed. It disproportionately affects the poor and the African-American community. It makes too many mistakes. Too many prisoners are unjustly placed on death row because of poor representation at trial. Too many others spend irretrievable chunks of their lives behind bars because of false identifications or shoddy police work or inadequate legal representation.

Our sentencing guidelines are too often draconian and, perhaps most important, precious little is spent to rehabilitate and/or train the tens of thousands of prisoners who eventually will return to society.

Prisons and prisoners can be easy to ignore. But we can’t keep locking people away and trying to forget they exist. Humans, even those who have broken the law, deserve better, and even tough sentences eventually end.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 2003

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