“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” is the famous quotation from the famous prison movie, Cool Hand Luke. The line was first stated by the prison warden while beating Luke, a new inmate. The warden was upset with Luke’s attitude towards the Warden’s advice about the positive influence of Luke’s chains.
Today, we still have a failure of communication about the prison crisis in the United States. The United States has twenty-five percent of the world’s inmates and five percent of the world’s population. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled from approximately 500,000 to 2.3 million people. There were numerous causes for this explosion of imprisoned Americans. Under President Reagan, a substantial number of state psychiatric hospitals were closed, which resulted in mentally ill joining an increasing homeless population. The mentally ill became part of the growing number of inmates serving time in our jails and prisons. President Reagan’s “war on drugs” increased dramatically the number of nonviolent offenders incarcerated in our federal and state prisons.
President Bill Clinton funded money for more federal prisons to hold the massive number of inmates imprisoned for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes. The states followed the federal example of incarcerating more and more offenders and building more prisons. Adding fuel to this fire, our incarceration policies discriminated against minorities. Five times as many White Americans were using drugs as African Americans, but African Americans were imprisoned for drug offenses at ten times the rate of White Americans.
Mandatory minimum sentencing and the “Three Strike’ policies removed discretionary sentencing from judges. First time offenders and repeat offenders facing minor charges received increased prison time under these harsh policies.
Although obvious, many Americans still do not understand what these alarming statistics are communicating – our criminal justice system is broken. We need alternative sentencing for nonviolent first time offenders. Many of our prisons and jails lack effective addiction, education, vocational, and rehabilitation programs. We need many more of our local communities to have supportive re-entry programs providing safe housing and employment for our returning citizens.
The failure to communicate and resolve our incarceration crisis has led to spending seventy billion a year in the United States on corrections. If a portion of this seventy billion was spent on rehabilitation and re-entry, our damning statistics would change for the better.
By: Bradley Schwartz
Founder of prisonpath.com