Reflection on “VICE: Fixing the System”

On September 27, 2015 HBO debuted the VICE Special Report: Fixing the System. If you haven’t seen it, please go to HBOgo.com right now and take 60 well deserved minutes and watch! Thank me later.

I know, I know… why should you care about people in prison? They made a bad decision and deserve their prison time and too bad so sad for them. I believe you should care about people in prison because one day they will have finally completed their prison term and deserve to be fully integrated back into society without being shunned. And honestly, we all make mistakes… not to be super religious but, “he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” I’ll just wait (sips tea).

Some stats from the ACLU: There are currently 2.2 million people locked away in prisons in America today. “Representing just 5 percent of the world’s population, [the U.S.] now holds 25 percent of its inmates. The U.S. spends 80 billion on incarceration each year. Blacks are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate 10 times greater than that of whites, despite the fact that blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rates.”

This special struck such a chord with me because; I started my formal career as an attorney in a criminal clerkship on the trial court level. So when I saw the trailer of our President Obama sitting down to speak with federal inmates, which is the first time a sitting U.S. president has done this (blank stare- how is this the first time??), I was so humbled by this simple act of treating imprisoned people as human beings (which happens a lot less often than you might think) and immediately intrigued.

While working for my Judge, I couldn’t engage with any of our defendants directly unless they called asking for their next court date or some very general information about their case. Family members would call and complain about various issues with their case or treatment of their loved one while in the corrections facility, and I felt helpless to do anything. (Side note: I would always tell my Judge about the various grievances (and she is so awesome) so usually some action happened in the matter when it was brought to her attention i.e. bail hearing, update on medical treatment from the jail or defense attorney, etc.) I’ve never had an actual conversation with any of them, who were often black and brown, but I was always curious: where they went to school, whether they were married, what happens to their kids (emotionally) while they are away, etc.?

Back to the special: the best part (to me) was the interviews of not just the inmate but also their families: the families who no longer had their husbands/ boyfriends, uncles, fathers, or sons in their lives. These mandatory non-violent (and harsh) sentencing guidelines left families, mothers, sons, daughters, fathers, nieces, nephews, without their loved one for years. I’m a bit of a sap so, maybe I shed a tear – or twenty – but honestly these policies destroyed communities and didn’t fix the problem. “Being tough on crime incarcerated a whole generation of people but the drugs are still there,” an interviewed Sheriff stated.

50% of incarcerated people return to prison one year from their release. Many former prisoners become homeless and remain unemployed (due to their felony conviction). Most are released from prison with $40. FORTY DOLLARS- a simple recipe for success right?

One man described his job search with his conviction. “[This system,] it’s designed for you to fail. I apply to five jobs a day and haven’t received one call back. Once you’ve been to prison, people don’t look at you as a person.” He understood how ex-offenders similarly faced with his reality of being unable to find work, reoffend. Not to mention the fines that each person has to pay back to the court and corrections system (if you don’t pay those fines they could be sent back to jail). In addition, due to their status as ex-convicts they are not eligible for government benefits like food stamps or section 8.

So in sum, watch “Fixing the System,” because this reflection isn’t all the information that was shared and it really should be required viewing for all Americans.

by: Yasmine-Imani McMorrin
#whyracestillmatters

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