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‘The punishment is that they are with us’

by Celine Sannes-Pond
staff writer

Enrollment at Willamette comes with many perks, including easy access to the Capitol, Bon Appetit’s seemingly endless supply of flavorless potatoes and the often over-looked benefit of our proximity to Oregon State Penitentiary, the state’s maximum security men’s prison.

Many students who have the opportunity to visit the prison remark on what a positive experience it is for them. I got involved at the prison through the debate team, which attends tournaments hosted at the prison once per semester. In fact, the team’s close relationship with the prison’s Toastmasters Club was one of the main reasons I chose to attend Willamette.

Part of why visiting the prison holds such value to Willamette students is having the opportunity to learn about the struggle against oppression that so many inmates face. It’s no secret that incarceration preys upon America’s minorities and the poor.

Prisons themselves represent hostile environments unique to the United States, as seen in the differing treatment of convicts in other countries.

“Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: they have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us,” said the director-general of Sweden’s prison service, Nils Öberg.

Prisoners in the U.S. face solitary confinement, little access to educational or entertainment resources, rampant physical, sexual and verbal abuse and food that’s actually worth complaining about.

Finally, those who have been through the justice system face bias and oppression after they’ve done their time. Discrimination against former inmates comes from everywhere, from employers to landlords to your average Joe or Jill making snide remarks about ex-cons.

Clearly, there’s a lot of room for advocacy in the justice system. A lot of us are aware of the most obvious problems, such as our incredibly high rates of incarceration (America represents only 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison inmates, according to Attorney General Eric Holder) and our deeply unjust drug laws.

Incarceration affects inmates and their families in ways that we might not always consider, particularly in day-to-day affairs. Here are a few of the most prominent movements aimed at improving the rights of inmates and ex-convicts worth keeping an eye on.

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1. Ban the Box

As a senior facing the prospect of life after college, I know very well the struggle of trying to find work. Especially work that pays well enough to cover expenses like rent and groceries as well as saving up for the future. We all know that college students, especially those who have studied the liberal arts, are the butt of all of the Baby Boomers’ favorite jokes (“An English major? Hope Starbucks is hiring! Har har har!”)

But if the employment market is bad for those of us lucky enough to have received a college education, it’s far worse for those of us unlucky enough to have experienced incarceration. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), between 60 to 75 percent of ex-convicts cannot find work within a year of their release from prison. The problem is significantly worse for black former inmates.

“The criminal record penalty suffered by white applicants (30%) is roughly half the size of the penalty for blacks with a record (60%),” a 2009 study by researchers Pagar and Western found.

The movement to “ban the box” seeks to work against the problem of unemployment for Americans who have been incarcerated by banning questions about an individual’s criminal record on job applications.

The movement began in Hawaii in the late 1990’s, and has gained momentum as the number of Americans who have been incarcerated has grown: according the the NAACP, the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. has quadrupled from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.3 mil in 2008.

The DOJ maintains that banning the box on applications improves an applicant’s likelihood of receiving the job in spite of a criminal record. It is easy for an employer to dismiss an application immediately upon seeing that the applicant has a criminal record, but having the chance to meet the hiring manager gives an applicant the chance to be seen as a unique human being, rather than the “bad guy” a manager might initially think of upon seeing that a job candidate has a criminal record.

Ari Melber, a reporter for MSNBC, said, “While the [box on applications] was once seen as a common sense way for employers to screen for criminal backgrounds, it has been increasingly criticized as a hurdle that fosters employment discrimination against former inmates, regardless of the severity of their offense or how long ago it occurred.”

Banning the box thus gives former inmates the opportunity to represent themselves, and encourages employers to consider whether a specific past crime will actually interfere with an employee’s ability to do their job competently and professionally.

Recently, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation barring New Jersey employers from asking for criminal history on job applications; New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s box-banning legislation banned employers from asking verbally or in writing whether an applicant has a criminal record, as well as from using public records to discover an applicant’s criminal history. President Obama stole some of New York’s thunder, however, by banning the box on federal job applications on Nov. 2.

In addition to these high-profile moves, ThinkProgress reports that as of Nov. 10, 19 states, approximately 100 municipalities, and several well-known private companies, including Walmart, Target and even Koch Industries have adopted similar “ban the box” measures.

This is beneficial not only to ex-inmates and their families but to all of us: the DOJ has found that one of the key indicators of whether someone will re-offend is joblessness. Making it easier for ex-cons to get a job makes it easier for them to avoid reverting to crime to pay for basic expenses, making them and society safer.

Employers can still perform background checks and ask applicants later in the hiring process about their criminal record. The movement will undoubtedly secure more jobs for ex-convicts by giving them at least a shot in the hiring process, but professional development is still needed to ensure that ex-inmates have the workplace skills and social capital they need to be hired.

As long as inmates are kept out of the workforce, they are missing out on learning the skills of a rapidly changing job market. This lack of experience imposes unique barriers to employment that are not addressed by banning the box.

Regardless of efficacy, though, the movement is undeniably important because it signals a move to stop treating ex-inmates as intrinsically different than anyone else who applies for a job.

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2. Fair phone policy

Brevity is the soul of wit, particularly if you or your loved one is incarcerated. That’s because making a phone call from prison can cost up to $2.40 per minute, or $17 for a fifteen-minute phone call, as reported by ThinkProgress. That’s $68 for an hour-long phone call. In extreme cases, Newsweek reports that a call can even run as much as $14 per minute. On the outside, though, the average consumer pays only 4 cents per minute.

The families of incarcerated individuals obviously don’t have the luxury of switching to a less expensive phone company. That’s because the Federal Communications Commission failed to regulate phone companies’ dealings with prisons. Three of these phone companies came to form a monopoly among prisons. As of 2012, 90 percent of prisoners in America lived in states that had signed exclusive (read: monopolistic) contracts with Global Tel*Link, Securus Technologies or CenturyLink. The largest of these, Global Tel*Link, is responsible for the phone calls of 57 percent of the incarcerated population in the United States.

The effects of such a monopoly on a literally captive audience are shocking. Overpriced phone calls home end up punishing not only prisoners, but their families as well. ThinkProgress reports that over a third of families with an incarcerated family member go into debt to pay for phone calls and visitation. The New York Times adds that the cost of phone calls, along with other living expenses necessary for inmates, leaves 50 percent of family members of inmates unable to afford sufficient food and housing.

Luckily, groups like the Prison Policy Institute have focused their energy on urging the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) to regulate phone companies to break down the exorbitant cost of calls. After receiving a petition from Martha Wright, a grandmother who could barely afford to contact her incarcerated grandson due to the exorbitant price of phone calls, the FCC placed a cap on the price of phone calls. The price per minute depends on the size of the facility, but across the board, no 15-minute phone call can cost more than $1.65.

Implementation will take time, but the FCC will conduct an investigation in roughly a year and a half to ensure that all prisons and jails are in compliance.

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3. Abolition

The most far-reaching and ambitious reform effort is not technically a reform at all. Instead, some activists prefer to scrap conversations about reform entirely and focus on abolishing prison in the United States once and for all.

The Prison Research Education Action Project  said, “the very nature of prisons requires brutality and contempt for the people imprisoned.”

The group maintains that the only way to create a just society that focuses on preventing crimes, rehabilitating offenders and connecting communities is through abolition.

Although many are skeptical of the movement to abolish prisons (the phrase “pipe dream” crops up in more than one blog post on the subject), a number of individuals and groups have embraced abolition as their ultimate goal. Advocates for prison abolition includes everyone from former inmates to Federal Judge James Doyle, who in 1972 described prisons as intolerable in American democracy, brutal to all involved and toxic to the social system.

Prison abolition advocates have two main concerns about prison: that it is an intrinsically inhumane practice and that it is an ineffective way to decrease violence and crime in our society.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), a group dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses around the world, outlines the many ways in which the United States routinely violates the human rights of those accused of crimes. Problems such as mass incarceration, disparate racial results in sentencing and coercive interrogation and prosecution tactics are cited as problematic in the conviction and sentencing of the accused.

In addition, HRW said, “Often, those least able to defend their rights in court or through the political process — racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, children, the poor, and prisoners — are the people most likely to suffer abuses.”

Once inside prison, inmates face a variety of abuses. They suffer punishments such as solitary confinement (recognized by the UN as a torture technique) and are forced to cope with subpar living conditions, such as cells without climate control and extremely limited access to showers and necessary supplies like tampons and pads.

Even if all of these issues were corrected, however, abolition advocates maintain that the forced incarceration of an individual is intrinsically inhumane regardless of treatment in prisons. The argument rests on the injustice of forcibly removing an individual from their community. The criminal will be punished by being held against their will, but their community will be punished as well. Incarceration hurts the family by removing an individual who may have provided important emotional and social contributions.

Even more troubling, though, is the economic impact of incarceration on communities. In 1996, Todd Clear, a well-recognized scholar in criminal justice, found that prior to incarceration, individuals usually invest a few thousand dollars per year in their communities simply by spending money near their homes. When they are incarcerated, costs imposed by prisons and the necessity of inmates to spend money exclusively through the prison translate into up to $25,000 in revenue per year per inmate for the prison.

Most of those incarcerated come from backgrounds of poverty. Through incarceration, the state hijacks money that would have circulated in poor communities and siphons even more money from the often-poor families of inmates.

Prison reform is important, but abolition is the only way to prevent the effects of the removal of people from their families and communities.

Abolitionists acknowledge these intrinsic problems with incarceration, and also point out that retributive justice does little to solve for crime anyway. Prisons are notoriously bad at preventing crime; rehabilitation and mental health services are chronically underfunded and college classes are often prohibitively pricey, leaving inmates with little assistance in establishing crime-free lives for themselves after release.

Even if rehabilitative services were drastically improved,  prisons would still produce a significant number of citizens who return to crime. This is due to a number of factors, but many abolitionists focus on the fact that while they are in prison, inmates are surrounded entirely by other people who have committed crimes. Inmates learn to sharpen their criminal skills by discussing strategies with other inmates. Multiple studies have concluded that prison tends to make inmates more violent, as they are in constant company of violent offenders.

Abolition activists propose alternatives to incarceration that benefit the accused as well as the community. They argue that the state’s response to crime should be tailored to individual circumstances. For example, crimes that result from drug abuse such as theft and muggings should be dealt with through rehabilitation. Other examples of alternatives to incarceration include restitution to victims, community work and supervision via probation. These efforts are designed to target the motivations for a crime and address those motivations with the perpetrator, rather than simply doling out punishment.

In addition, the abolition movement seeks to eliminate many of the causes of crime. While many activists recognize that violence and crime will likely always exist to some extent, they point out that many crimes are the result of widespread systemic problems like poverty, racial discrimination and toxic masculinity that society does little to confront. They advocate for addressing these problems to prevent crime well into the future.

While the jury is still out on whether a society can truly exist without prisons, the abolition movement paints a vibrant picture of what society could look like if we devoted our efforts to addressing crime with compassion and preventing situations that lead to crime. Such a seemingly extreme critique raises important questions about the role of a justice system and calls upon society to reckon with the harms of the justice system as it stands today.

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Some of the people in prison are there for relatively victimless crimes, like non-violent drug possession. Others are there for crimes that most would agree are morally reprehensible. Regardless of what events led to a person’s incarceration, though, they are human beings. We are responsible for the well-being of others, and this means providing a basic level of human dignity to every single person in America, whether or not they are a citizen and whether or not they have committed acts with which we disagree.

As Willamette students, we are in a unique position to learn from our neighbors at the prison, and to transform our knowledge into action. You know the drill. Through educating ourselves on the issues that affect others and supporting movements to address these issues, we have the opportunity to help make America more just for everyone.

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