On Incarceration and its Issues

This semester, I am in a class under the Department of Psychology called Project Outreach. This class is a service-learning class where each student in the class is a given a placement where they will participate in community service projects outside of the class each week. My section of this course is called Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Each week this course consists of our 1-2 hours of placement work and 1-2 hours of lecture/discussion on topics of Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

I was placed in a group called the Youth Arts Alliance through a program called the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). I will be working with juveniles in a youth center in a nearby county –facilitating sessions focused on using your pain, passions and happiness to create. I am beyond excited to begin working with these young adults, and I am so hopeful in how much they will impact the way I see myself and the world.

Each week in our lecture portion of class, we have an outside guest speaker come into class and share their work and experiences in the Criminal Justice system. This past week, a man by the name of Ronald Simpson-Bey (Program Associate of AFSC – Michigan Criminal Justice Program) spoke to our class. Bey began his presentation by sharing about his organization and his past. He was incarcerated for 20+ years for an unjust sentence. His time in prison taught him a lot about the sort of man he wanted to be when he returned home. He learned a lot about the way the incarcerated were viewed by society and how they were treated on the inside. Upon being released, he began working with the American Friends Service Committee in order to better the lives of the incarcerated, those with a criminal record, and their families.

On our first day of class, our Student Instructor shared this video with us from the Last Week Tonight Show with John Oliver. This clip discusses only a small amount of the infinite issues with the prisons and the criminal justice system in the United States.

When Bey spoke with us, he shared some pretty shocking statistics about the prison system. There are over 2.4 million people currently incarcerated in the United States. Our country only makes up 5% of the total world population, but we incarcerate almost 25% of the worldwide prisoners. In the state of Michigan, the budget for prisons is over $2 billion a year – this is higher than the budget for education in our state.

There is an endless laundry list of issues facing incarcerated Americans – including the over classified security levels, grievance processes, food served to prisoners, overcrowded facilities, and the difficult process of getting money or medications on the inside. These are only a few of the issues facing prisoners in the United States. 

I was captivated by Bey’s passion to make a change for those on the inside, but the part of his presentation that I will never forget was one particular story he shared from his time in prison. He told a story of one day that he was expecting a visit from his four children, but after several hours of waiting and waiting, he thought something might have happened that had prevented them from coming to visiting hours. He used some of the precious money in his phone account to call home to check in on his kids. When he reached one of his family members, he learned that his oldest son (21 at the time) was shot and killed by a juvenile.

Since his sentence was not yet up, he worked furiously from the inside of the prison in order to ensure that this juvenile was not charged as an adult in court. This man did not want his son’s murderer to be charged with a life sentence as an adult. He said that if this kid were to be charged as anything but a minor, “It wouldn’t bring back my son. It would just destroy two families.” The entire room was struck into complete silence by this man’s words. 

As someone who was on the inside for so many years, this man knew that no matter what this kid did to his family, he didn’t deserve the way prisoners are treated. I don’t know how to even begin to explain how much I feel for Bey, his family, and all others who are affected by the United States prison systems, but I can say that I know that nothing will change if we continue to turn our head the other way and ignore it. 

In his video on prisons in the US, John Oliver says, “At least Sesame Street is talking about prison. The rest of us are much happier completely ignoring it. Perhaps because it is so easy not to care about prisoners at all.”

We live in a country that is addicted to incarceration as a tool for social control. As it stands now justice systems are extremely expensive, do not rehabilitate but in fact make the people that experience them worse and have no evidence based correlatives to reducing crime. Yet with that track record they continue to thrive, prosper and are seen as an appropriate response to children in trouble with the law. Only an addict would see that as an okay result.

– James Bell, Do One Thing 



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