Prisoners of the system

Of all the social justice issues we hear about in the media, few seem to be getting less coverage than the American prison system.

Many justice groups like Amnesty International are quick to point out the abuses at our prisons abroad, such as Guantanamo Bay, yet the abuses within the prisons in our own nation rarely top the priority list. Whereas the abuse in Guantanamo is physical, verbal and psychological, the abuse in domestic prisons is subtly ingrained into our legal system and cannot be solved simply by shutting the prisons down.

Some of us might have heard that that the U.S. prison population is the biggest in the world at 2.2 million people, housing a quarter of the world’s prisoners despite representing only one-twentieth of the global population. This gives us by far the highest per capita incarceration rate, as well: one in every 32 Americans is either in prison, on probation or on parole. Since 1980, our prisoner population has gone from 500,000 to over 2.5 million. Could this have to do with the rise of private prisons and the so-called prison industrial complex?

Making a business out of prisons, like making a business out of war, will turn arresting, or killing, into an end, not a means to an end. People are not put in prison just to be corrected, but are herded like cows through a factory of cells. This system produces profit for the prison owners, guards and investors, all on the taxpayer’s bill. For too long we have forgotten the point of prisons: they are correctional facilities, not human warehouses.

Few people are aware that prisons are becoming choice locations to recruit cheap laborers who will not organize into unions or strike, and can be paid as little as 17 cents per hour.

In 2008, it was reported by the Left Business Observer that federal prisons produce 100 percent of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bulletproof vests, uniforms, tents bags and canteens, as well as 93 percent of paints and paintbrushes, 92 percent of stoves, 36 percent of home appliances, 30 percent of speakers, 21 percent of office and airplane parts, medicinal supplies and more.

A for-profit prison system like this lends itself to exploitation of citizens. It is set up to treat them as economic inputs, not as innocent-until proven-guilty, law-abiding citizens.

It’s not that we don’t need prisons in our society, but that prisons rarely serve their role of reforming individuals to re-enter society.

More federal prisoners are convicted for non-violent drug offenses than for all other crimes combined. Numerous studies have shown drug abuse can be dealt with more effectively outside of prison, yet we continue to lock up drug users at an incredible cost. According to, $1 billion is spent each year on prisoners convicted for marijuana offenses alone. Yet upon release, many prisoners find themselves a ‘danger to society’ again because of their same untreated, addictive, violent or abusive behaviors, ready to go through the prison cycle once again.

The odds are particularly stacked against minorities. African-Americans, who represent only 13 percent of drug users, represent 37 percent of drug arrests, 59 percent of convictions and 74 percent of drug sentences. Black males are 13 times more likely to go to jail for a drug offense than white males. Similarly, Latino-Americans are arrested for drug offenses at three times their proportion in the general population.

This is clear evidence of the racial foundations of our drug laws and the widespread racial profiling that continues to this day and has led to a plethora of minorities being held in prison, often innocent and awaiting a fair trial. The prison system affects more than just incarcerated persons; their families and communities are affected as well.

As Americans, we need to re-think the foundations of our criminal justice system and begin weeding out the roots of institutional racism.

By Jeremy Aaron
Published: Friday, March 5, 2010

Jeremy Aaron ‘10 ( is from Saint Louis Park, Minn. He majors in environmental studies with a concentration in media studies.

Direct link to Article Here


Stillwater prison goes into lockdown after protest

By Peter Cox – Stillwater Gazette
Published: Monday, January 11, 2010 2:02 PM CST

BAYPORT – The Minnesota Correctional Facility – Stillwater was forced to go into lockdown mode Sunday afternoon after inmates in a unit there refused to return to their cells.

Around 280 inmates were coming from the dining hall in the B-West unit of the prison, in which cells are double-bunked, when they began protesting the unit’s rules, said Shari Burt, spokeswoman with the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC).

About 150-200 of the prisoners refused to return to their cells around 1 p.m.

Prison staff responded with its Special Operations Response Teams and help from other prisons.

It wasn’t until 3:40 p.m. that the prisoners complied and returned to their cells.

“Offenders peacefully returned to their cells,” Burt said. “Staff didn’t use any force.”

She said that no injuries were reported by staff or prisoners, and there was minimal property damage.

“There was no structural damage,” she said. “Mostly it was just making a mess.”

The entire prison was in still lockdown as of Monday afternoon.

Lockdown means that offenders are in their cells all day. No programming and no movement are allowed during a lockdown and prisoners are given meals in their cells.

Burt said the protest had to do with the day-to-day operational rules of the unit, including issues such as the amount of time prisoners are allowed out of their cells.

Prisoners that have programming, education or work a job can be out of their cell from 6:10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. About one third of prisoners in the unit that protested are idle during the day, meaning they get very little time out of their cell.

Burt says the prisoners can be idle if they’ve not been cooperative, if no jobs are available and if they are not involved in any programming.

Staff members will be reviewing the incident, the response to it and the issues raised by the inmates, Burt said.

The prison was locked down in November of 2008 after a fight. The prison has scheduled lock downs in orders to find contraband and do searches.

Copyright © 2010 – Stillwater Gazette