On Oct. 27, 1994 — 21 years ago today — the U.S. Department of Justice reported that the United States’ prison population had reached over 1 million people. By comparison, that’s the same size as San Jose, Calif.— the tenth biggest city in the US.
Today, the United States’ prison population is over 1.5 million — the size of Philadelphia, Pa., our nation’s fifth largest city.
Yet the size of our prison population — the largest in the world — is only part of the problem. Communities of color and poorer communities are disproportionally sentenced to prison — the result of systemic injustices including income inequality, school-to-prison pipelines, and racial profiling.
We mark many positive anniversaries here at Sojourners, but the work of justice also necessitates recognizing ongoing abuses of human dignity over time. So today, on the grim anniversary of 1 million people housed in our prison system, we choose to remember them and all those still behind bars. Here are ten articles we’re re-reading today about mass incarceration — and how to end it.
1) “In many former slave states, slavery did not end. It simply evolved,” says narrator Bryan Stevenson in this viral art video ("How Slavery Led to Mass Incarceration") from activist Molly Crabapple.
2) “A human rights nightmare is happening on our watch.” In "Cruel and Unequal" (Sojourners magazine, Feb. 2011), Michelle Alexander debunks the myth of a post-racial or colorblind society. Despite having a black president and first family, “there are more African-American adults under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”
3) Did you know that a high school dropout is 8 times more likely to interact with the prison system, juvenile detention, or probation? In order to reduce the number of young people funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline, Nicole Baker Fulgham ("Cradle-to-Prison vs. Kindergarten-to-Graduation") thinks we should focus on supporting children in our public school system.
4) “Approximately 95 percent of the incarcerated are released back into society at some point, but many of them find it nearly impossible to find gainful employment. Half of them return to prison within three years.” However, Tobias Winright sees a possible solution: college education for inmates and correctional officers ("A Matter of Degrees," Sojourners magazine, June 2015). A college degree significantly reduces the return rate for inmates, and provides correctional officers with more opportunities as well.
5) “I was literally walking in the shadow of death, but I was able to escape into the world I wanted, that I was able to create inside my head,” recounts Ndume Olatushani in "The Art of Escape" (Sojourners magazine, Nov. 2015). Convicted of a crime he did not commit, Olatushani found joy in painting while and prison, and upon his release chose to teach young people the power of creative expression.
6) “I know you all are still convinced that I’m the person who killed your father, your son, and your brother — but I am innocent ... I am so sorry for your loss. I really am. Sincerely.” With these words Troy Davis addressed the family of the man he was convicted of killing. In 2011, he was put to death for a crime that many doubt he ever committed. Explore more about his case and the reasons to abolish the death penalty in "What’s Wrong With Capital Punishment?" (Sojourners magazine, Dec. 2011).
7) Rev. Darren Ferguson demands that Christians who worship a man killed by capital punishment advocate for greater criminal justice reform ("From Prison to the Pulpit: A Powerful Story of Hope"). “We can’t serve a man and we can’t talk about a man who was a victim of capital punishment unless we do something about all forms of punishment,” he says in this illustrated speech from 2014.
8) While locked in an inhumane system, prisoners find ways to cope, as Kathy Kelly describes in a piece about a women’s prison ("Possibility of Escape"). Despite a system meant to divide and humiliate these women, they find opportunities to help one another “through the trauma of adjustment to being locked up for many months or years.”
9) “Prisoners are our version of the untouchables.” But the Free Minds Book Club in Washington DC attempts to connect with inmates through poetry and the transformative power of books in this moving video essay by JP Keenan ("Writing Poetry From Prison"). Through poetry, inmates are no longer “untouchables,” but people who can share their story with others.
10) “I hear a stirring, a rumbling. An awakening.” As Americans wake up in outrage about our racialized criminal justice system, and the so-called “war on drugs,” Michelle Alexander feels things change in the United States ("How to Dismantle the 'New Jim Crow'"Sojourners magazine, July 2014). With hope and awareness, advocacy and change can become a reality.