October 3, 2016

OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM | We Need to Look at Prisons

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Photo Courtesy of Juvenile Justice Blog


There are some places where the eyes of the press rarely go. Maybe it is because they do not care. Maybe it is because they cannot. Yet this lack of a gaze has left a large blind spot in coverage, which may allow some truly terrible things to continue to happen.

The United States has more people in prison than any country in the world. We have more people in prison than India and China combined, even though we have 2.2  billion fewer people living in our country. We also have more than 5 million people, through parole and probation, under surveillance of the criminal system. These horrifyingly high incarceration rates have been heavily influenced by the war on drugs, in which thousands of people are arrested for offenses and sentenced to significant jail time for drugs offenses that should be dealt with through legalization, medical or treatment systems. The most prevalent influence is most likely systematic racism, where our policing and the judicial system have targeted Black Americans, Latino Americans and other minority groups leading to high rates of prison incarceration. Minority groups are much more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to longer jail time for the same crime, helping to create a prison system where almost 70% of people in prison are persons of color. Some even argue that the prison system represents a “new form of slavery” or “Jim Crow,” designed to keep racial stratification in place.

The media continue to be partly complicit in this process. Not many reporters are devoted to reporting on prisons. As NPR noted, the largest prison strike in the history of our country started three weeks ago, and was almost universally ignored by the media. This has ranged from hunger strikes to work stoppages, as many protesters are asking for an alleviation to the forced labor that occurs in prison. Under the 13th amendment which banned slavery, there is an exception for “punishment for a crime whereof the party shall be duly convicted,” allowing today’s prisons to force inmates into labor with extremely low or without any form of payment. Protestors are also making demands related to the strike including overcrowding, maltreatment, the right to unionize and retaliation against collective action. With such a large-scale strike, more than 20,000 inmates on strike at one time often risking extreme punishment, larger media outlets could have done a much better job covering what has occurred and promoting the stories of those who are voiceless due to position.

However, there is another side to this story. Prisons and our government do not want reporters to get into prison. When people are convicted of a crime and sentenced, they lose many of their rights as a person and a citizen. For example, many people lose their right to vote in some states permanently if they are convicted of a felony. Most importantly, those in prison often lose contact to the outside world and the ability to express their views in public. Many politicians who want to appear “tough on crime” have enforced extremely restrictive laws on journalists. Media members can be prevented from interviewing prisoners deemed to “pose a risk,” and are often not allowed to carry writing materials, recording devices or cameras when talking to prisons. In many cases, access comes down to the whims of particular officials, and obtaining interview requests with specific inmates can prove to be a significant, nearly impossible challenge.  In Louisiana, a prisoner was punished for criticizing prison staff while speaking with reporters. In some cases, prisoners are not legally allowed to maintain social media accounts, even if members of their family are the ones overseeing the activity. While some parts of prisons are subject to freedom of information act requests, they can be heavily manipulated by prison officials, and private prisoners are exempt from these requests, even as Democrats in Congress have pushed to eliminate these protections many times. It seems that those in the government often make it as difficult as possible to access prisoners, allowing their stories and voices to go unheard.

As a country, we obviously need to do a better job managing our criminal justice and reforming it so it acts for our citizens and not against them. Yet a large part of that is creating an impetus to change how we see jails and how we cover them. People in prison are still human beings and they should be allowed most of the rights, as all citizens are. One reason for the continuing systemic racism and poor conditions of our prison is that most media has ignored them for years, allowing those issues  to fester and impact millions of lives. News outlets must report more honestly about prisons and give voices to those behind bars. Even more so, we must change our laws and attitudes so that we can effectively report about prisons. Journalism should be welcomed into prisons to hold our government institutions accountable. It is up to us to shift the gaze of the press onto a place we have long ignored.