This last month, three members of the Harvard University debate team went head to head with three inmates convicted of violent crimes in a debate competition. Opposed to popular belief, the losers of this debate were from the top ranked Ivy League University. What does this say about America’s prison and criminal justice system? It is no new opinion that there are too many incarcerated people in the United States—more than any other country—but something we should also think about changing is our perceptions and stereotypes towards incarcerated America. Perhaps these stereotypes are what is really inhibiting prison inmates from improving their life outcomes.
In an article from the Population Reference Bureau “the United States tends to stay around 100 prisoners per 100,000 population. The U.S. rate is 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents, or about 1.6 million prisoners in 2010, according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)”. Of this prison/jail population, men make up 90% and “In 2010, black men were incarcerated at a rate of 3,074 per 100,000 residents”. The United States’ incarceration statistics are truly a national embarrassment that is a heated bipartisan debate throughout the upcoming 2016 election.
An important concept that is often overlooked by the everyday non-incarcerated person is that America’s high incarceration rate is not lowering America’s rates of crime. If anything, crime rates have fluctuated in the US while incarceration has increased. Bruce Western is a sociologist at Harvard University (how ironic!). According to Western, “increased incarceration accounts for only about 10 percent of the drop in crime rates”. So why the hell do we still have so many people in jail—especially for things like small drug misdemeanors? Misconceptions like these are damaging for many inmates—those in and out of jail. All too often people assume that a person with a record of jail time is overall a bad, and most importantly, dangerous person. In addition to that, the individuals within the prison system are heavily marginalized so that their actual abilities are ignored or believed to be subpar to that of a person that is not incarcerated.
I came across a post on Reddit which asks “hey [correctional officers], what are some of the common misconceptions people have about prisons, but get absolutely wrong?” A person with the username minywheats responds that “The biggest misconception people have is that crazy shit happens all the time. Ninety-nine percent of the time absolutely nothing happens. You sit at a desk, inmates go to and from their jobs, and you do rounds and write some paperwork. Seriously it’s one of the most boring jobs on the planet”.
So what does all of this have to do with Harvard’s debate team and the fact that they lost a debate to prison inmates? The point that I am trying to make is that we are constantly underestimating incarcerated America as human beings. Dr. Jeff Manza is a professor of Sociology and Political Science, and Associate Director and Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, and Dr. Christopher Uggen is a distinguished McKnight Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. They stated in their 2006 book titled Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy that
"Ex-offenders face legal restrictions on employment, they lack access to public social benefits and public housing, they are ineligible for many educational benefits, and they may lost parental rights. In many states, their criminal history is a matter of public record, readily searchable for anyone who wants to know. Research on the lives of ex-offenders has consistently demonstrated they have difficulty finding jobs and a safe place to live, reconnecting with their friends and families, and making their way in a world where they are branded, often for life, by the stigma of a criminal conviction."
Felons are completely stripped of their humanity in the eyes of the everyday person (who probably is not affected by incarceration in their own life) which is why the story of the prison debate team defeating Harvard’s is considered such big news. It is as if people are surprised that prison inmates have the mental capacity to develop a well-informed, intelligent debate team. Should not Harvard University be mortified at this defeat? I hope you are catching my vigilant sarcasm here. It is important to mention that members of the prison debate team had absolutely NO access to the internet in preparation for the debate—they relied on the prison library and basic common sense.
More needs to be done to combat the commonly held stereotypes about incarcerated American inmates and their abilities. Of course, there are those in the system who are in fact dangerous and in need of confinement, but that makes up a small percentage of the large amount of people who are in jail. Perpetuating these stereotypes inhibits inmate’s ability to make a better life for themselves when their sentencing is up. Inmates are far from ignorant to the misconceptions that are held about felons, and if we do not correct these issues a self-fulfilling prophecy arises and felons internalize the stereotypes made about them. Considering the incarcerated population in the US s 22% of the worldwide incarcerated population, I think we owe it to them.