Incarceration of a Nation
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, imprisoning 664 per 100,000 people. On any given day in the U.S., we imprison an estimated 1.9 million people and each year spend an estimated $182 billion on the criminal legal system.
Photograph by Michele Zousmer
By Christopher Blackwell
Christopher Blackwell is an award-winning journalist currently incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center, Shelton, WA. He is serving a 45-year prison sentence for taking another human’s life during a drug robbery—something he takes full accountability for. He was raised in a mixed Native American/white family in the Hilltop Area of Tacoma, Washington, one of the roughest places to live in the country– ravaged by over-policing, gangs, violence, and drugs.
Published September 2023
I was 12 years old the first time I was incarcerated. This wasn’t uncommon where I grew up, in the impoverished and overpoliced Hilltop area of Tacoma, Washington. One day in 1993, a cop frisked my friend and I while we were on our way home from school. I had a small amount of marijuana in my sock — but enough to change my life forever. The cop found the weed in my backpack and my school books were replaced with handcuffs. I was hauled off to juvenile detention, the beginning of my long journey through the carceral system. Thirty years later, I’ve still been unable to free myself from its grasp.
This is the system we have created in America, one that targets the poor to feed the monster of mass incarceration. It is a system sustained by fear and misconceptions that crime is, somehow, always on the rise and that we must take action to keep our communities safe. This narrative is reinforced daily, from TV shows like Law and Order to breathless news coverage of crime, which often lacks context about broader trends or the specific circumstances that led to a particular crime. The only solution, we are told, is to incarcerate more and more people for longer and longer periods of time.
In reality, the “overall crime rates remain near historic lows,” the Prison Policy Initiative wrote in a recent report. Even during a spike in homicides in 2020, which is now declining, homicide rates remained far below their peak in the 1980s and 1990s. “What has actually changed the most is the public’s perception of crime,which is driven less by first-hand experience than by the false claims of reform opponents,” the report continued, citing public polling data.
Politicians responded by using the violent crime spike in the 1980s and 90s to justify a tough-on-crime crackdown. They spread the racist myth that the country would be overwhelmed by a wave of “super-predator” youth — mostly used to refer to Black and Brown boys — who would kill for no reason at all. In this climate of fear, voters and lawmakers throughout the country dramatically increased prison sentences and worked to oust from office those who didn’t fall in line.
In my home state of Washington, voters passed Initiative 593, commonly referred to as “Three Strikes,” mandating life without parole sentences for people convicted three times of certain crimes. Until recent legislative reform, hundreds of people were struck out, serving life without parole sentences for second degree robbery offenses, which can include stealing food from a grocery store. For some, their “strikes” date back to cases from when they were kids, waived into adult court. Some even had crimes committed under the age of 18 used against them to get stuck out, often because they refused a plea deal for decades in prison by prosecutors.
Just two years after three strikes, Washington imposed weapons enhancements under a bill called the Hard Time for Armed Crime Act of 1995, resulting in longer prison sentences. Despite the promise that these harsh laws would reduce crime, there is no evidence that occurred. Rather, crime rates were already declining nationwide, both in states with similar laws and those without. Meanwhile, prison populations exploded. In Washington, the state’s prison population nearly tripled from about 9,800 people in state prisons and jails in 1983 to 26,913 by 2015, according to the Vera Institute. The expansion of life without parole sentences has created a ballooning aging population, at great cost to the state. In 2001, the Sentencing Commission found that elderly prisoners cost more than four times as much to imprison as the average prisoner — a finding the commission found “even more troubling” given how rarely the elderly recidivate.
Today, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, imprisoning 664 per 100,000 people. For reference, Canada imprisons just 104 per 100,000 people. On any given day in the U.S., we imprison an estimated 1.9 million people (1.26 million in state and federal prisons and about 514,000 in local jails). The U.S. spends an estimated $182 billion on the criminal legal system per year, including $81 billion for prisons, jails, probation and parole.
Over the past 50 years, the state and federal prison population has grown by a staggering 700%. It is clear that impoverished communities of color are disproportionately harmed by increased incarceration. Although Black people make up 38% of the prison and jail population, they represent only 12% of the U.S. population.
“Incarceration is a traumatizing experience both for those who are locked up and for those who love them,” Melissa R Lee, the assistant director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality wrote in an email. It “deprives loved ones of their children, their parents, their partners, their friends, and of the experience of living together. It also deprives communities, especially communities of color, and society at large, of vast amounts of talent and resources.”
Having spent most of my life in the criminal legal system, I have witnessed one heartbreaking story after another. Like Jonathan (Jon) Kirkpatrick, now serving a life sentence for a murder he committed at the age of 19.
Jon grew up in extreme poverty. His mother, who had been married six times during his childhood, struggled to support her children. Some of the men she brought home were abusive. One of his stepdads was an escaped convict who took him and his family on the run, evading the U.S. Marshals for years. They lived in rundown motels, where drug addiction, violence and sex work were common.
Looking to escape this toxic environment, Jon moved in with his biological father. He quickly realized that this living situation was no better. His father beat him often and by the age of 11, Jon was using meth. He spent much of his childhood in juvenile group homes and eventually dropped out of school. Living on the streets of Los Angeles, he did sex work to pay for his drug addiction. He was a kid trying to survive in environments that would jade him forever.
Jon leaned further into drug use, the only thing that helped him forget the cards he’d been dealt. As he struggled to afford his habit, he fell into a dangerous path of robbing drug dealers and stealing anything of value. Tragically, someone lost their life and Jon lost his freedom.
Now three decades later, Jon is drug-free, a mentor to younger prisoners, and a successfully published writer. These changes were possible because people began to see who Jon really was and invest in him. Older prisoners in mentorship roles taught him how to facilitate non-violent communication dialogues. He connected with others who struggled with addiction through Narcotics Anonymous and learned to lead those meetings. Eventually, he partnered with the nonprofit group Empowerment Avenue, which supported him in publishing his writing in mainstream media outlets. (Empowerment Avenue also supports my writing.) One step at a time, Jon developed his confidence and grew into the man he was always meant to be.
It has become exceedingly apparent that the majority of people in prison are here due to the circumstances they grew up in, which were often out of their control. They are the victims of being born into poverty, abusive or neglectful families, over-policed neighborhoods, and the violence that these conditions create. In short, they have spent their entire lives living to survive, not to thrive. They carry generational trauma and often lifelong connections to the carceral system.
“Prison exacerbates all of those feelings,” James King, the co-director of programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said in an interview. “If you felt low self-worth in your family, wait until you see an indictment that says, ‘The State of California vs. James King.’ You’ll feel a little bit more isolated.”
Unjust Financial Burdens
“If you have feelings of low self-worth or low self-esteem, prison increases those feelings and significantly contributes to the lack of tools to deal with trauma that underlie where a lot of harmful activities come from in the first place,” King said.
It’s not just the people imprisoned who are harmed by the status quo — our family members and loved ones bear an enormous emotional, logistical and financial burden as well. First there’s the cost of legal support, for those who can even afford to hire a lawyer. Families often borrow from friends, take out loans, or even sell their homes to hire lawyers they hope can bring their loved ones home. But the cost doesn’t stop there. Once inside, prisoners are faced with a deluge of fines and fees related to victim’s funds, court costs and the cost of incarceration. If my family sends me any money, roughly 50% of it gets taken out for these fees. As a result of these high fees and low wages, many prisoners rack up institutional debt just by purchasing things like soap, toothpaste and stationery to stay in touch with friends and family.
Everything in jail and prison — from phone calls to Top Ramen to a sheet of paper — costs exponentially more than in the free world. And because prisoners typically earn pennies per hour for their labor, the costs of basic necessities fall to our loved ones. Private companies that provide commissary goods or phone services to prisons bring in $2.9 billion per year, the Prison Policy Initiative estimated in 2019. Inflation in recent years has only driven up the prices of food and personal hygiene products. Maintaining relationships is expensive too. Visiting requires taking time off work and often spending hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in travel and accommodation.
“I hate that they need to support me in this way,” Bud Fraser, who is incarcerated in Washington state, said in an interview. “Knowing they struggle to do it is frustrating.”
Inside of each and every prison in the U.S., you will find a humanitarian crisis. The infrastructure is rotting, the pipes are eroding, the water is often contaminated, the heat and the air conditioning are constantly broken (or non-existent), flooding is common, mold spreads freely, and infectious diseases run rampant. We subsist on a diet of processed foods — even the prisoners put to work growing crops often do not have access to the fresh fruits or vegetables they grow. Violence is commonplace, both from guards who operate with impunity, and from other prisoners, many of whom are in desperate need of mental healthcare. We have minimal access to medical care and plenty of reasons not to trust the medical professionals inside. (In my state of Washington, the prison ombudsman found that medical staff in facilities throughout the state delayed for months in diagnosing and treating cancer patients, sometimes resulting in death.)
Many facilities operate beyond their intended maximum capacity, the risk of which was made especially clear as COVID-19 tore through prisons and jails. It is no coincidence that incarcerated people have accounted for a disproportionate amount of the pandemic’s death toll.
Forced to live in these unsafe environments, we are often sentenced to more than simply a loss of liberties and freedom. Spending time in prison can be a death sentence, even if that wasn’t the assigned punishment. Each year that someone spends in prison decreases their life expectancy by two years, the Vera Institute found.
Although prisons pay lip service to rehabilitation, carceral environments encourage violence and often punish efforts at self-betterment. The few rehabilitative programs that do exist are often watered-down classes that exist to justify more funding for the prisons. Prisons function primarily to warehouse people until their time is up, at which point they are released back into the community with limited resources, extensive unprocessed trauma, and a criminal record that restricts their employment and housing opportunities.
Alternatives to Incarceration
True change doesn’t come from spending an arbitrary number of years locked up — it comes from accountability and learning to love and respect yourself. Those of us who learn to take responsibility for the harm that we have caused and have the sense of self-worth to hold ourselves to a higher standard have done so in spite of, not because of, the prison system.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We do not need prisons to keep us safe — and there’s plenty of evidence that they only put us in more danger. Although prison abolition sounds like a far-off reality, we already have a model of an alternative way of addressing harm.
“When I think about the principles of abolition, I think about many of the wealthiest and most resourced communities among us, and look at them as a template in the roadmap for what, in an ideal world, would be available for everyone,” said King. “They have the resources needed in those communities to address trauma, for people to have a living wage, for people to have affordable housing, for people to live in healthy environments. Their basic needs are taken care of so they are able to work towards better communities.”
“Equally important to that is, as they’re growing up and they are sometimes creating harm in their neighborhood, it’s not criminalized, it’s treated as something that needs to be addressed through means other than the criminal system,” King continued.
Seeking alternatives to incarceration does not mean abandoning accountability. As a society, we will always need ways to address harm that is caused, but the U.S. criminal legal system and incarceration rarely do a good job of making anyone feel whole,” Lee said. “Locking people up doesn’t result in healing for either the person who was harmed or for the responsible party. Creating more possibilities to address the harm itself will result in much better outcomes for everyone involved.”