Behind social bars: The problem with the US prison system


2.3 million. That is the number of people-according to Prison Policy- incarcerated in the United States at this moment. Considering the US maintains an average population of 325 million people, meaning about 1% of the entire country is behind bars, the land of milk and honey has an undeniable issue with its system of penalty. Over 3,000 prisoners in the US stand before life sentences for completely nonviolent criminal offenses (shoplifting, grand theft auto, drug abuse etc.). However, offenders are facing just as difficult times after prison than they do during.

As if the punishment of losing one’s freedom is not enough, offenders are met with the horrors of serving time beside other inmates. About 12.1% of youth held in juvenile detention reported at least one case of sexual harassment, and several more studies point towards an increase of rape cases in general prisons. Violence inflicted by other cell mates upon criminal offenders is not part of the sentence punishment. If an offender breaks the law, then the offender must do their time-nothing more, nothing less. The prison staff often turn the other cheek when they have a responsibility to take care of these offenders within the walls of prison.  

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Photo Courtesy: OC Register A corrections officer sees his wards back to their unit for lunch at the Orange County Juvenile Hall in the City of Orange

The Eighth Amendment of the US directly states “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”What is even more problematic is the fact that the tactics have proven to be deeply ineffective. Around two thirds of people that are released from prison end up returning. So what is the US doing wrong? The answer lies hidden between two words- The Box.

When former prisoners regain their freedom to return as members of society, they are cast as second class citizens. Only a little over 26.5% of inmates are employed post serving.  Bipartisan have pointed towards the box for this societal refusal to hire ex-offenders. The box refers to any documents or application questions that ask if the person applying has a criminal background. Essentially, its a lifetime prison sentence minus the metal bars.

Only nineteen states have established “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies against this, meaning 39 other states continue to encourage internal unemployment. Former prisoners need jobs as much us the rest of us do-it is crucial to their survival. A 2018 study done by Prison Policy stated  “formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression”. This study also showed that unemployment rates of the previously incarcerated are most significant among Latina and black females- a product of adding up the criminal, racial and gender stigma attached with them.

The US prison system, however,  continues to dehumanize these criminal offenders and maintain that such repercussions as unemployment and physical abuse are a part of the prison process-They aren’t, or at least they shouldn’t be. It is a “cruel and unusual punishment” for prisons to provide platforms of illegal abuse for offenders doing their time, and it is unacceptable that a super power nation like the United States would provide such little opportunity for redemption. This apathetic attitude towards the treatment of inmates further feeds the way society views offenders after they serve their time; they remain to be treated as offenders. This may even trigger offense relapses, such as theft for survival, and the cycle will inevitably continue.


America needs to decriminalize ex-criminals-it’s common sense. The past is the past, and if former offenders are ever expected to carry on with their lives, they are  going to need the opportunity to do so.

Written by Sarah Kadous

Sarah Kadous is an 18-year-old political activist from San Diego, CA. When she's not fulfilling her duty as the Co-Editor in chief of the MC Sun, the News and Activism Editor of Pure Nowhere Magazine, and Co-Director of March for Our Lives San Diego, Kadous religiously drinks cold brew and listens to the soothing soul Luiz Bonfa.

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