Every year, American taxpayers fund an estimated $60 billion for our incarceration system. This system staples together a network of public and corporate-run jails, prisons, pre- and post-release centers, juvenile detention centers and boot camps. All together, these facilities hold well over 2 million human beings, locked away without public oversight or scrutiny.
Yet throwing money at the perceived scourge of criminality in the United States doesn’t appear to have had the desired effect: Despite the staggering incarceration statistics, violent crime has actually begun to creep up over the last two years, according to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report.
In the last several years, some signs have emerged of an increasingly organized movement of citizens, family members of the incarcerated, independent-minded judges and correctional or criminal justice experts–who stand in firm opposition to our punitive, nonrehabilitative incarceration system.
Viewed through an optimistic lens, the United States might genuinely be at the beginning of a trend toward real criminal justice reform. Meanwhile, millions of Americans have already paid far too high a price for shortsighted penological policies. Floridian Yraida Guanipa is among them.
Guanipa spent the last ten and a half years locked in federal penitentiaries in Florida, locked away from her Miami community, her extended family and two young boys.
Her offense: She agreed to pick up a sealed package for a friend, which turned out to contain cocaine. Although Guanipa had never been arrested before–and had never been a drug user–she was hit with a thirteen-year “drug conspiracy” prison sentence on par with a sentence that a major drug trafficker would have received. Guanipa’s good standing in the community, her lack of criminal background and the fact that she had a 1-year-old and a 2-year old had no impact on her sentence.
The story has become sadly familiar to me, particularly as I have spent the last few years corresponding with, meeting and interviewing women like Guanipa in jails and prisons across the country.
In the decade of her imprisonment, Guanipa witnessed two suicides; countless incidents of medical negligence; the brutality of prison retaliation; and the everyday reality of sexual relations between male guards and female inmates.
Guanipa became an outspoken advocate for other prisoners as a self-educated jailhouse lawyer, but most prisoners talk about retreating within themselves to try to survive the ordeal. Concern for collective well-being is difficult, if not impossible, when individual survival is on the line.
“Unfortunately, that’s what prison does to us,” Guanipa explains. “It takes the human feelings out of our body, and we just try to survive.”
Tasteless films like Let’s Go to Prison notwithstanding, what really goes on in prisons is still a mystery to most Americans, as are the immeasurable collateral consequences of incarceration on families and communities. Arrest and incarceration are woven into the fabric of American life: Today, a black man has one chance in three of ending up in prison at some point in his life, and is more likely to go to prison than to graduate from college.