Staff, students discuss dark reality of mass incarceration in U.S.

by Jayla Shanmugam,, Editor-in-Chief

The following story was written by a student on the staff of The Jaguar Times as part of Hilliard Bradley High School’s Journalism Production course.

Many Americans will face a future with unjust and extended sentences due to the color of their skin. Photo provided by Unsplash.
Many Americans will face a future with unjust and extended sentences due to the color of their skin. Photo provided by Unsplash.

There is a devastating problem that is incredibly important in America, yet until recently it has not been discussed in depth. This issue is the racial bias in The United States prison systems and the volume of prisoners that this country has. The racial injustices in the prison system is something that many of us are able to ignore because it doesn’t affect us, but in order to change it we must have these conversations. I wanted to get Hilliard Bradley’s staff and students' opinions on the racism of our prisons and how we can be more knowledgeable on this issue.

I first wanted to give the data on the harsh realities of mass incarceration of black people so, I presented the interviewees with these shocking statistics from Harvard University,

“There are also large disparities in incarceration. In 2005, Blacks constituted 12.8% of the general population but nearly half of prison inmates and 42% of Death Row residents...About a third of young black men aged 20–29 were in prison or jail or on probation or parole on an average day in 2005. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated in 2003 that 32% of black men born in 2001 will spend some part of their lives in a state or federal prison. That is a substantial underestimate of the likelihood that black men will spend time behind bars [because] it does not take account of jail confinement, which is much more common than time in prison. (Tonry and Melewski 2008, 2) Recent estimates show that black men are 5–8 times more likely to end up in prison than white men (Pettit and Western 2004). The pervasiveness of imprisonment for African Americans has even led some researchers to argue that imprisonment is a common and normalized stage of many African Americans’ life course – especially for black men.”

When asked what they make of these statistics Maya Roher(12) commented, “These statistics make me lose hope for the future of our country. We are supposed to be a place based on freedom and equality, but how are we supposed to live in a society that contradicts our core values.” This is the response that everyone I interviewed had when they heard how likely it is for black men to end up in prison. It is obvious that this is not a coincidence, but a cycle that is perpetuated by systemic racism within our system.

Ms. Thomas spoke to the history and stereotypes that fuel this problem, “African Americans were enslaved for longer than we have actually had our rights, so that balancing act still isn’t there. There is a history especially when we still live in a segregated country that being black automatically makes you a criminal. That being black automatically made you a threat. Putting people of color in jail were ways to control that population and also give not a scapegoat, but an embodiment of what that evil is in American society. So, if it’s evil, if it’s something that should be punished it’s usually going to be associated with darker skin.” This helps put into perspective that there is a perception in America that black people are more threatening or evil. This comes from the fact that racism has been allowed to thrive in America. The trickiest part about addressing the disparities in incarceration is that it is happening in a way that is easier to ignore. It is not something that is as obvious as slavery or Jim Crow was and that is why it is so crucial that we educate ourselves on this topic so we can help change it.

The racism of incarceration is something that some willfully ignore because it makes them uncomfortable. When asked if she thought if Americans were aware of the severity of African Americans in prison Grace Malarkey (12) commented, “I think they don’t know because a lot of people are stubborn and ignorant to what is actually happening. They would rather stay in their circle of privilege.” Not acknowledging white privilege is incredibly detrimental to stopping racism. Ignoring the issue just makes people a part of the problem because they are willingly complacent to a society that doesn’t serve everyone equally.

There are many ways that you can break the cycle of complacency and become educated. Mrs. Gmerek recommends that, “Because of technology, our generation and those after us have access to people and stories and information that were more easily swept under the rug for previous generations. I can open my computer or my phone and read or hear stories about immigrant families cruelly separated at the border, black mothers afraid to let their black sons drive, Asian Americans being threatened and harassed during the pandemic, or former inmates jumping through unbelievable hoops just to exercise their right to vote.” Actually listening and reading stories of real people’s stories is a way to make connections between the facts and who they are affecting. Elyanna Rhondon (11) suggests that, “Signing petitions is so easy and will take you less than five minutes.” This is a really simple thing that anyone with access to technology can do! It is also a great way to make your voice heard. Lastly, Miss Thomas thinks people should check out, “The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and watch 13th the documentary on Netflix.”

Right now, America leads the world in the amount of prisoners per capita. We are a mere five percent of the population, but twenty-five percent of the prison population. Despite this, I know that America could be number one in change, rehabilitation, and kindness if we educate ourselves and start digging ourselves out of the hole we are in. So, The Jaguar Times recommends going out and educating yourself on the racism that is embedded in our justice system. We all have a voice, so let’s use them!