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Op-Ed: Mass Incarceration Is An Urgent Human Rights Crisis

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In February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island prison after 27 long years of unfair imprisonment. The release of the world’s most famous prisoner added poignancy to Black History Month, and justice-loving people around the world rejoiced to know that an innocent man, incarcerated for his effort in dismantling the apartheid system, now walked free.

Mandela’s release, the result of an international campaign, is still a victory. Yet, 32 years later, triumph gives way to a sobering reckoning when considering our own nation’s astronomical incarceration rates, numbers that have quintupled since the early 1980s. There are currently more than 2.5 million people under carceral control in the United States, 96,000 of whom reside in Pennsylvania. These numbers do not include the more than 200 immigrant detention centers scattered across the country. This renders us a nation that locks up more people than any other country in the history of the world, including more Black people than South Africa ever did throughout the apartheid regime. Addressing this grave crisis is the most consequential and urgent human rights challenge of our era.

By now most people understand that racial bias, discriminatory sentencing and social inequities are contributing factors that keep Black people constructed as “criminals” and thus overrepresented in America’s jail cells. Black and Brown communities remain profoundly impacted by the intergenerational effects of mass incarceration, yet the carceral reach extends far beyond these communities. Today, the largest growing prison populations are rural communities, which in Pennsylvania translates to more and more poor, white people being locked up for longer and longer periods of time. 

The category of “criminal” should be recognized as a shifting category defined at the expediency of state power. That Mandela was subjected to legal incarceration under the guidelines of South African law demonstrates the elasticity of what a “criminal” is. Throughout the 40 years of hyper-incarceration in America we saw the way “tough on crime” policies led to the implementation of more and more laws, stiffer penalties and less opportunity for recourse. More and more people branded as “criminal” with carceral control as the sole designated penalty. Recently we have watched as the category “criminal” has expanded to include “immigrant” and even more shocking “immigrant children” which has resulted in the shameful hallmark of our era, “children in cages.” Prisoners’ rights are best understood in the jurisdiction of human rights, and prison injustice should be recognized as the cornerstone foundation to the proliferation of so many other social ills including race and class discrimination, state terror, and state violence. The state is revealed as a bureaucratic entity that metes out violence and bureaucrats are administering state violence through carceral regulation.

How many times have you driven past Rockview and either gawked or made jokes? SCI Rockview, one of 28 state correctional facilities in Pennsylvania, houses approximately 1,500 incarcerated human beings, none of whom you have probably ever met, or considered. These men have no visibility in the cultural life of Centre County nor voice in local or national elections. For those serving lengthy sentences, this civil death precedes their physical death, which can be considered “Death by Incarceration.” They’ve been disappeared from their own communities, and are invisible in ours. This isolation is by design and it is very dangerous. 

When author and lawyer Bryan Stevenson addressed the Centre County community on March 20, 2019 (incidentally, the same day State College police killed a mentally ill Black man, Osaze Osagie), he urged the audience to “get proximate” to marginalized communities in order to witness their suffering and marginalization first-hand. Invisibility is dangerous. Extreme isolation leads to dehumanization and the proliferation of unchecked abuses such as intentionally starving inmates, depriving people of their prescribed medical diets, torturous use of solitary confinement, destruction of private property, use of chemical agents beyond legality, medical neglect, pervasive violence and pervasive sexual abuse, including rape. In short, mental and physical torture. These abuses happen in Rockview and in every facility in Pennsylvania. They happen in every prison across the nation. Once you “get proximate” to prison injustices, what you learn will shock you. Once you look, you may not be able to look away.

These issues of prison injustice are both a national urgency and a state-level responsibility. Pennsylvania laws are especially harsh when it comes to the most discriminated group of prisoners: the more than 5,000 people serving life sentences without possibility of parole. The rhetoric is familiar: “Lock them up and throw away the key.” But the reality is that, without parole evaluation, prisons become warehouses for sick and aging prisoners and places where people who may have been sentenced as teens serve decades and decades without consideration of a second chance, regardless of context. 

Two bills which deserve support are SB 135 and SB 835. In tandem, if passed into law these bills would go a long way towards abolishing Death by Incarceration as they would permit chronically ill, geriatric and those serving life sentences the ability to be evaluated by a parole board and possibly released. Retribution over rehabilitation benefits no one except those who profit financially from the business of prisons, and “Lock them up and throw away the key” over second chances and restorative justice practices means Pennsylvania’s prisons are populated by sick and elderly people who could otherwise spend their last months and years meaningfully among their families and communities.

The racist foundations of police and policing continue to make mass incarceration an important theme of discussion not just during Black History Month, but throughout the year. The reach of carceral control, which disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities, also impacts greater numbers of poor, white rural communities, as well as growing numbers of women of all races and ethnicities. Mass incarceration does not make our communities safer, and prisons do not rehabilitate the captives. They are repositories for human rights abuse and they bolster an unjust social order which is enforced through state violence and state terror. 

The best antidote to mass incarceration is mass decarceration, and the best antidote to the extreme isolation that incarcerated human beings suffer is solidarity. Dismantling the prison-industrial complex means investing in social programs, anti-poverty programs, education, healthcare and mental health services. It means to stop building new prisons. It means supporting legislation that could send people home when they are deemed to no longer be a danger to society. Prisons keep people isolated, fearful, dehumanized, and silenced. Recognizing the rights of incarcerated human beings means the abuses which occur behind locked doors do not continue to spread in an environment of public apathy and ignorance. This solidarity should be available for political prisoners like Nelson Mandela was, as well as for the more than 5,000 people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania prisons. 

As Mandela reminds us “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones.” Mass incarceration, and the attendant inequities that it both causes and perpetuates, is the single most urgent human rights crisis of our era. We must believe that a better world is possible.

Dr. Jennifer Black is the Central PA community organizer for Straight Ahead, a statewide prison justice organization, and is chairperson of the State College NAACP’s criminal justice committee. She is happy to provide resources and ideas for those who want to “get proximate” to the issues and people impacted by incarceration. Please contact her at [email protected].