The United States is the incarceration superpower of the world. There were nearly 2.3 million people incarcerated in America’s prisons and jails as of 2015, a number that dwarfs that of any other country, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center.
The U.S. rate of imprisonment has increased nearly 500 percent over the past 40 years from just over half a million to 2.3 million, as the project notes. Furthermore, the United States sends people to prison with sentences far longer than most other western nations, according to the Justice Policy Institute — a non-profit organization that advocates for justice reform — despite nearly half of all people imprisoned in this country being convicted of nonviolent crimes.
Of the many issues that plague American society, this country’s incarceration rate and prisoner treatment is the one that has gone on for too long, affects too many people and has left the largest blight on our recent history.
The Georgetown University Prisons and Justice Initiative, with its commitment to educating the student body and the public about the gross injustices of the American criminal justice system, is attempting to change this. The American criminal justice system is incredibly racialized: The United States incarcerates far more men and women of color than it does white men and women, according to The Sentencing Project. The demographic group with the highest likelihood of incarceration is black men, who have a one in three probability of going to prison at some point in their lives.
The numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. As the American Civil Liberty Union notes, prisoners often face horrific conditions, live in filth, lack access to adequate medical or mental health care and are subjected to abuse. Upon release, formerly incarcerated citizens are subject to discrimination when seeking employment, stripped of many of their rights — including, often, their right to vote — and are left with a lack of opportunity that leads to recidivism.
Americans have allowed this gross violation of human rights to persist in our country because it affects the most vulnerable members of society — those who have no voice and whom no lobby, politician or powerful corporation cares about. Because they are seen as lesser and because there are so few advocates for them, the plight of incarcerated Americans has been ignored.
I am one of those people who was supposed to ignore all of this. I come from a white, middle-class town in northeast Ohio. I have never been to prison, nor have any members of my family.
When the opioid epidemic hit my community, when classmates began to disappear from the hallways and when mugshots of my neighbors showed up in the daily paper, I did not ask questions.
It was not until I came to Georgetown and got involved in the Prisons and Justice Initiative — in addition to taking “Prisons and Punishment,” a life-changing class taught by the initiative’s director Marc Howard — that I realized the depth of the injustice that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated prisoners face.
As a research assistant for the Prisons and Justice Initiative, I have been able to work with an initiative dedicated to confronting these injustices. Through events and programs like the Georgetown-Jessup Debate Program, which teaches competitive debate skills to incarcerated students at the Jessup Correctional Institution, and PJI Pals, a mentorship program that pairs Georgetown students with children whose parents are incarcerated, the initiative seeks to start conversations about criminal justice issues and to contribute positively to those in our community affected by the criminal justice system.
This year, the initiative invited Heather Ann Thompson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy,” to speak about her book and the impact that the 1971 riots at the Attica Correctional Facility have had on building the punitive justice system we have today. We are looking forward to a year full of programming that informs, challenges and inspires Georgetown audiences.
This country’s treatment of its prisoners is the largest problem facing our society today. The initiative hopes to honor incarcerated Americans and their families by telling their stories, educating the public about this deeply flawed system and sparking conversations that will provoke change.
We cannot keep treating the millions of Americans affected by the criminal justice system as if their lives are meaningless. We cannot continue to leave them without a voice.
Mattie Haag is a senior in the College.