Five terrifying truths about our criminal justice system

For America’s incarcerated millions, is there anything more frightening than reality?

Written by Beryl Lipton
Edited by JPat Brown

We’ve heard a lot on the abysmal state of our criminal justice system this year, starting from the first interactions with law enforcement, throughout incarceration, and into the parole and reentry period. As we approach the end of the year and the beginning of a new presidency, let’s give some thought, to the everyday, mind-boggling ways that being a prisoner in America is absolutely terrifying.

1. The Constitution may not apply

Ironically, once a person has been taken into the custody of the state, a whole swath of that Supreme Law of the Land may not apply.

There’s no definite verdict yet on how much an inmate is allowed to express under the First Amendment, though it’s pretty clear that censorship is permitted of both the materials he or she receives and reads and is allowed to send. Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure don’t apply in your cell or even in your home when on probation, where a search can be conducted by a probation officer without a warrant. And multiple state prison systems themselves have been deemed in violation of Eighth Amendment guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment by virtue of their terrible medical offerings.

Package that up with explicit prisoner carve-outs in the Thirteenth Amendment for slavery and in the Fourteenth Amendment permitting their denial of the vote, and you’ve got a situation in a majority of the country where to be in prison is to effectively be in political exile.

2. The employees are miserable

Being in prison is hard for everyone, the employees included. Under most circumstances, prison is a collision of derailed lives, understaffed facilities with overworked correctional officers dealing day-in and day-out with so many tough temperaments all together. It can be hard

Really hard.

3. There are private prisons - and they won’t go away

Bring money into the equation, and things can get murky very quickly. Most of the country was introduced to private prisons this year when the major liberal candidates added to their platforms the industry’s demise. For-profit prisons have been slowly incorporating themselves into state and federal systems for the last three decades, and even as the BOP announces the end of their use, the federal government is expanding their employment in other ways. Meanwhile, Corrections Corporation of America has recently rebranded as Core Civic in a new effort to refocus the company’s assets.

4. There’s so much we just don’t know

The Justice Department recently announced that it would make a more concerted effort to track uses of force by law enforcement, in the wake of disbelief that such data wasn’t already being stored. As we transition from a paper to digital world, we the people will have to push from greater and effective accountability measures where they matter to us.

Every day, thousands of people leave and enter and move from jail to jail, from free citizen to law enforcement custody. And despite the impression that we’re living in a Big Brother dystopian future, there is a lot of that isn’t kept track of.

5. The prison sentence is only the beginning of your punishment

Prison is a place so unpleasant that as a culture it seems we’ve all turned to humor as our collective coping mechanism. We assume that there’s little recourse for the extra ills that befall you while behind bars, so we take it as a given that this is just the way things are.

And nothing is scarier than apathy.

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Image via Pixabay