D Kevin McNeirEditor's ColumnColumnistsOpinion

EDITOR’S COLUMN: U.S. Prisons Strangely Resemble the Abolished ‘Peculiar Institution’ — Maybe They’re Cousins

Despite the musings of many brothers and sisters who insist that being behind bars isn’t all that bad, I’ve never wanted to have anything more than a vicarious experience of being locked up in America’s profit-making jails or prisons. After a stupid night on the town many years ago, I got my one-night taste of what it was like. And believe me, I made sure I never returned again. As for comments like “all my friends are there and it’s like a family,” I suppose that I should believe what those formerly incarcerated say — I just can’t.

The latest trend in efforts to reform criminal justice systems in many states has been to cut budgets — budgets that are paid with taxpayers’ dollars. The rationale is that after decades of constant growth, 2016 was the first year that the number of people sent to prisons for low-level offenses declined by 7 percent after peaking in 2009. So, it makes sense to cut costs as prison populations decline.

Seems like that would make sense, right? But consider what recently happened in South Carolina which boasts having the country’s cheapest prison system for taxpayers at $20,053 per year (compared to New York which has the highest expenses for taxpayers, $69,355 annually).

In order to save money, South Carolina has reduced mental health and other rehabilitative programs, eliminated amenities and activities that keep prisoners busy and, in many cases, because of the closing of multiple maximum-security prisons, they’ve found it necessary to increase the practice of mixing violent and nonviolent inmates while also employing fewer guards. Thus, South Carolina witnessed the nation’s deadliest prison riot in the last 25 years after seven inmates were stabbed and slashed to death this April.

Violence is on the rise with deaths inside prisons almost doubling over a decade, from about four homicides per 100,000 inmates in 2014, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. And while the federal government does not keep data on prison riots, state records and media accounts indicate that there were at least nine prison riots nationwide in 2017 — equaling levels last recorded in the 1980s.

So, while states are saving money, those who are sent to prison are being crowded into cells like sardines — or perhaps like slaves once were as they were being shipped from Africa to America and other western countries.

One more recent change that astonished me: before one rule was ended in federal prisons, it was harder and more expensive for thousands of inmates to receive books because of the banning of direct delivery through mail from publishers, bookstores and book clubs. Inmates couldn’t even have books shipped free from friends and relatives and could not have books sent directly from online retailers like Amazon.com. According to reports by The Washington Post, inmates in at least four facilities were required to order books only through a prison-approved vendor and at three of the prisons, to pay an extra 30 percent markup. The restrictions were already in place in Virginia and California and were scheduled to start this month in Florida.

America used to care about its citizens. America used to boast about its efforts to rehabilitate those who had broken the law and were sentenced to serve time in our country’s prisons and jails. America used to be a place of benevolence for those who may have fallen along the way or made the mistake of breaking the law. But that’s not the America in which we live today.

Beware my brothers and sisters. There’s a new form of slavery in America. The “peculiar institution” has been refitted, refashioned and reconfigured — it’s called jail.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Washington Informer Editor

Kevin, an award-winning veteran journalist, book editor and educator, is the editor for The Washington Informer where he displays a keen insight for political news, editorial development and lifestyle features. A staunch Wolverine, the Detroit native left a promising career at IBM to pursue his passion for writing under the tutelage of the late Sam Logan, founding publisher of the Michigan Chronicle. His journey has continued to press rooms in Grand Rapids, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and currently Washington, D.C. With two master's degrees from Emory University and Princeton Theological Seminary, he finds great joy in his children and grandchildren and is completing his first book, "Growing up Motown" which chronicles his childhood memories with legends like Marvin Gaye, Kim Weston, the Four Tops, the Miracles, Gladys Knight, Berry Gordy and the Jackson Five.

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