Prison reform is happening.
That's the bit of good news. But it comes with some caveats. For one, the state of our prisons in the United States has been so poor that it's considered a milestone when non-toxic drinking water — which a judge ordered necessary in a Texas prison last week — is granted for incarcerated individuals.
The simple fact that prisoners had to go to court in order to get safe drinking water is an indication of how poorly we treat incarcerated members of society. It's even more frightening when you consider the fact that the United States has 25 percent of the world's prisoners despite only making up five percent of the world population.
Ronald Day, associate vice president of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at The Fortune Society, an organization that helps rehabilitate formerly incarcerated individuals, noted the importance of what goes on inside prison walls.
"What happens to people inside prisons matters when they're there, but it also matters when they are home," Day told A Plus. "95 percent of people who are incarcerated return home at some point. We want people to return home without having trauma; we want them to be able to secure employment and housing and live lives where they can thrive."
Unfortunately, within three years of release, over 50 percent of American prisoners will be back in prison. The recidivism rate in the United States — or the rate at which prisoners are re-arrested or re-convicted — is one of the highest rates in the world. In a report entitled "Incarceration and Recidivism: Lessons from Abroad," researcher Carolyn W. Deady hypothesizes that this might be due to the United States' emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation.
These numbers make the changes happening in our prison system all the more important. Over the last year or two, we've seen a number of prison reform headlines that are both encouraging and at the same time frightening; frightening because of the lack of humanity in what was happening before laws and rules were changed.
"When you treat people inhumanely, the chances increase that they won't be able to achieve the success we want them to achieve," Day said.
Here are seven things prison reform advocates recently achieved that prove that, really, we're just getting started.
1. Phone minutes — yes, minutes — that don't break the bank.
Did you know that for years prisoners had to pay up to $14 a minute to make calls to family members? Rates for phone calls were so high that one in three families of incarcerated individuals were going into debt simply to speak with their loved ones in jail.
Despite the fact contact with family members had been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism, calls remained insanely expensive until this past year. Thankfully, an FCC regulation capped the cost at 11 cents a minute in October.
2. Drinkable water.
You'd think safe drinking water would be one of the first things a prison would take care of, but apparently not. In Houston, Texas, a group of prisoners who said they had to "drink arsenic-laden water to stay cool" inside their Texas prison won a court battle to ensure safe drinking water.
Despite being one of the less maligned "low-security prisons," U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled that The Pack Unit geriatric facility, which houses about 1,400 inmates, was violating "contemporary standards of decency." The facility has 15 days to replace its water supply, FoxNews reported.
3. Basic protections for LGBT inmates.
In September, San Francisco County Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi announced his plan to house transgender inmates according to their gender preference. The move was the first of its kind in the United States, but begs the question: why has it taken this long? And why aren't other prisons following suit?
If an inmate requests a change, the application will go through a review process that will not be solely based on reassignment surgery or being diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
4. Necessary access to feminine hygiene products.
Not long ago, we reported on how New York City public schools would be integrating free tampons into their women's bathrooms. Now, the program is being extended to prisons as well. Headed by New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the program guarantees free access to menstrual hygiene products for women in New York City jails, schools and shelters. The bill passed unanimously 49-0.
"This package is remarkable," Ferreras-Copeland told the crowd. "It is the only one of its kind, and it says periods are powerful. Menstrual hygiene products are as necessary as toilet paper — and no one is freaking out about toilet paper."
5. Reasonable sentences for some nonviolent criminals.
In October, a new bill gave judges new freedom to abandon mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes, helping ensure criminals on trial weren't given unjustly long sentences.
The bill didn't go as far as some advocates hoped it would in completely wiping out mandatory minimum sentences, but it was a good step.
"People can always point to things they'd rather have in a bill," Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, one of the major Republican figures involved in the bill, said. "This reflects changes that are positive, strong steps in the right direction. I think they will make all the difference in the world to those to whom the laws will apply."
6. A (slightly) reduced risk for the dangers created by overcrowding.
Amusement parks, pools, beaches and concerts are the kinds of places where a little crowding is OK. Prisons are not.
That's why U.S. officials announced in October that they'd be releasing some 6,000 prisoners from federal penitentiaries across the country. It was the largest federal release of prisoners ever, and could be a sign of what's to come.
7. Humane treatment for children in the system.
It seems unthinkable that we'd even put juvenile offenders in solitary confinement, but we did it for a long time. Obama's ban, which was announced in January, affected about 10,000 federal inmates. The hope is that other state penitentiaries will begin following his lead.
"We know that solitary confinement does a tremendous amount of harm to people, we have people who are in our system that have been in solitary confinement not just for weeks or for months but for years," Day said. "The fact that the president is pushing this agenda is really important."
Day noted that the Obama administration has also launched the Second Chance Pell Pilot program, which aims to offer higher education to prisoners when they are incarcerated. Quality education inside prison has been shown to reduce re-incarceration rates a number of times, and Day sees it as one of the biggest programs coming down the pipe to help reform the prison system.
"As a society, we should not want to lock up so many people, period, not just because we can't afford it anymore," Day said.
"Part of it is that we try to incarcerate our way out of some of the social problems that we have, but the fact that we are all singing the same tune saying that 'criminal justice reform is a necessity' is really encouraging."
Cover image via Shutterstock.