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October 24, 2013

Rights advocate discusses American prison policy

By Mara Biggs

On Oct. 16 from 5-6 p.m., Paul Wright spoke about America’s current prison policy in Cleveland-Marshall Law’s moot court room.

Wright, who is the executive director and founder of the Human Rights Defense Center, editor of Prison Legal News, and an author, spent 17 years in prison himself. He satirically discussed how remarkably he thinks the U.S. prison system works as a tool of social control.

“It’s been a pretty carefully designed policy over the past 30 years,” Wright said of the prison system.

There are currently 2.5 million people locked up in the U.S., not including juveniles and people in mental health facilities or other secured facilities. The prison population has been rapidly rising as America continues to increase criminalization, said Wright. He mentioned the registration of sex offenders, imprisonment for failing to pay child support and the war on drugs as some of the latest factors driving the crime rate up.

Wright argued that building prisons in the U.S. is like creating space for the poor, since the poor make up the largest part of the prison population.

“The United States has basically been very successful with substituting a mass-imprison policy for other forms of policy,” said Wright. “We may not have public housing, but we do in fact have housing in the form of prisons.”

Wright also argued that having no mental health policy in the U.S. is a big issue, with 40 percent of all prisoners being seriously mentally ill. He said that the U.S. is using imprisonment policy to lock up the mentally ill, like the poor, instead of implementing other policies that deal with the root causes of their criminalization.

In addition to housing the poor, Wright said that prisons are meant to help the poor who are living in rural areas economically, since poor, rural areas are where most prisons are built. He said the problem with this, though, is that most of the people living near the prisons don’t want to work in them. Wright said another problem is that prisoners are usually shipped from urban areas to these rural prisons, which are far away from their homes, making it very difficult for prisoners to keep in touch with their loved ones.

Wright discussed how mass imprisonment affects America’s unemployment rate, stating that if the millions of people locked up in U.S. prisons were out looking for jobs, the country’s unemployment rate would look something like those of Western Europe – in the double digits.

Wright thinks it’s unfair that convicted felons lose their right to vote and bear arms, and that interestingly, prisoners are used in counts for district’s voter populations, even though they aren’t eligible to vote. He also said mass incarceration has stifled political dissent in the U.S., as its strong enforcement has made people too scared to speak out or rise up against authority.

“One of the things about the American police state is that it promises security but it doesn’t deliver it,” said Wright. “But it delivers a lot of jobs and it transfers a lot of wealth. It’s really good at that.”