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The US' prison system disproves its democracy rhetoric

By Andrew Korybko | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2022-07-12 10:04
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Illustrated by Luo Jie/China Daily

There's no such thing as a "perfect democracy", but the best governments continually strive to improve their form of governance with an aim towards maximally benefiting their citizens' lives. The US is no exception to this despite its officials being indoctrinated with the discredited supremacist ideology of "American Exceptionalism", which preaches that their country is the best to ever exist in human history. Its prison system, on multiple fronts, disproves this rhetoric.

The US' judicial system has been widely criticized for disproportionately convicting and incarcerating African Americans. Some claim that this makes it explicitly racist while others believe that it's a nonracial problem connected to the state's failure to provide racial minorities with credible opportunities so that they aren't influenced by certain environmental factors which, some theorize, are responsible for leading those underprivileged to commit said crimes. Either way, African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned, which is problematic.

The country's prison system doesn't successfully rehabilitate most rightly convicted criminals like it's supposed intention. This is evidenced by the high rate of recidivism among those who are eventually released. This represents a threat to law-abiding citizens since those who are rightly convicted should theoretically learn their lesson after doing time behind US bars. The fact that some go back to committing crimes, including violent ones, shows that the system has failed the same people that it officially represents.

There are very racially uncomfortable optics of a judicial system disproportionately dominated by Caucasians disproportionately imprisoning African Americans. This observation adds credence to claims that the problem isn't just a nonracial one connected to a dysfunctional system, but an implicitly racial problem that might even be purposely neglecting its responsibility to minorities at trial and behind bars. That could explain why it's persisted for so long and hasn't yet been sufficiently fixed.

The problem is only getting worse with the trend of private prisons. These for-profit establishments have a financial motive in providing prisoners with the bare minimum that they need to survive. Reports claim that some are overpopulated, which would be in violation of prisoners' human rights. Since African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned, this suggests that private prisons are literally profiting from racism, which also adds credence to claims of systemic racism.

Be it in private prisons or public ones, inmates often join gangs based on race or are coerced into doing so. This is problematic for several reasons. First, prison gangs are responsible for large-scale brawls that have the potential to turn deadly on occasion. They're a threat to inmates and should be disbanded by their prison's authorities, who instead turn a blind eye to this racial form of societal organization that by its very existence contradicts their government's rhetoric about racial equality and "colorblindness".

Second, these racially organized criminal organizations can distract inmates from their rehabilitation while serving time, which contributes to recidivism. Third, these organizations usually have members in the streets who are actively committing crimes and who incorporate released inmates into their criminal networks once they leave prison, which predictably worsens the recidivism rate. It's therefore inexplicable that these gangs are tolerated by prison authorities when they're so counterproductive.

There's a saying that a society can be judged based on how it treats its most desperate citizens, and there a few who are more desperate than those who've been imprisoned for crimes that they hopefully actually committed and weren't unjustly sent to jail for. Theoretically, these people are supposed to focus on rehabilitating their lives so that they can return to being responsible members of society upon their release, which also ensures law-abiding citizens' security. That's how everything should work.

Instead, the US' disproportionately Caucasian judicial system disproportionately imprisons African Americans, including those who claim they were unjustly sent to jail for racist reasons. Even those who were rightly convicted of their crimes can claim that environmental influences played a part in what they did and that the state had a responsibility to improve their living situations in order to preemptively reduce crime. Upon being imprisoned, inmates then face abuse by fellow convicts and guards alike.

Many of those who sincerely want to improve their lives have difficulty doing so because of racially dominated criminal organizations that distract them from this noble goal and also influence them to return to lives of crime upon release. This leads to their lives being ruined, poses a threat to law-abiding citizens' lives and is a security challenge for the local authorities, yet nothing has been credibly done to comprehensively improve this atrocious situation over the years.

The US' prison system therefore discredits the country's democracy rhetoric by exposing it as a sham, and a profitable one for those that are employed by private prisons. Racial and even sometimes financial factors play an outsized role in these systemic failings that should be unacceptable. Raising awareness of this interconnected human rights-judicial-racial crisis is everyone's responsibility in order to pressure the authorities to finally improve this shameful situation.

Andrew Korybko is a Moscow-based American political analyst.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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