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13TH | Full Feature - 1:40:03
America's Enormous Prison Population Got Even Bigger
U.S. Imprisons More People Than Any Other Nation
Providing Treatment Vital to Decreasing Recidivism
Girl Dies of Cancer After Dad's Visit
War Prisoners
Should LGBT inmates have their own prisons?

America's Enormous Prison Population Got Even Bigger

The U.S. Attorney General has been making headlines talking about the need for "smarter" sentencing and fewer people behind bars.

But most of those who are incarcerated are doing time under state laws, and that point was driven home by a new report this week that shows our prison population is still growing.

The report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that, despite the federal prison population declining for the first time by 0.9 percent in 2013, the overall prison population increased slightly by 4,300 prisoners, or 0.3 percent.

That's because of an influx of 6,300 people into state prisons, a 0.5 percent increase from 2012

That's a small increase, but it breaks the pattern, which began in 2009, of the overall U.S. prison population shrinking each year. It's also in the context of America being the prison capital of the world, with 1,574,700 inmates locked up across the country.

The report also found that the number of women serving more than a year in prison increased by 3 percent.

The Prison Policy Initiative has a few other takeaways from the report:

Racial disparities continue to constitute the defining characteristic of the prison system. For example, 3% of Black males of all ages are currently incarcerated in state or federal prisons. This is a rate 6 times higher than white males.

14 states hit new record high prison populations in 2013: Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming.

Texas, one of the states with the highest incarceration rates and which had a much heralded “reform” of its prison population, saw an increase in both its total prison population, its sentenced population, and its incarceration rate.

As Jon Oliver recently mentioned, the U.S. has just 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prisoners.

Joshua Marquis, who sits on the board of the National District Attorneys Association, previously told The Huffington Post that, through the Bill of Rights and other legislation, America provides its citizens with a tremendous amount of freedom. That freedom is taken advantage of by a small subset of the population, that needs to be locked up, Marquis said. He also said that imprisoning people over the last four decades has helped bring crime rates way down.

But groups like the American Civil Liberties Union argue that locking up more people doesn't always mean less crime. In fact, the opposite can be true.

Stanford Law professor Robert Weisberg recently told NBC Bay Area that "there’s no clear evidence that reductions in prison population ... have led to increases in crime."

But one thing the new report makes clear is that, despite the Attorney General calling for prison reform, there is a long way to go for those who think America should lock up fewer people.

U.S. Imprisons More People Than Any Other Nation

Tough sentencing laws, record numbers of drug offenders and high crime rates have contributed to the United States having the largest prison population and the highest rate of incarceration in the world, according to criminal justice experts.

At the end of last year, the U.S. had 2.2 million people in jail, more than any other nation. One in every 32 American adults was in jail, on probation or on parole.

A U.S. Justice Department report released on November 30 showed that a record 7 million people -- or one in every 32 American adults -- were behind bars, on probation or on parole at the end of last year. Of the total, 2.2 million were in prison or jail.

According to the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College in London, more people are behind bars in the United States than in any other country. China ranks second with 1.5 million prisoners, followed by Russia with 870,000.

The U.S. incarceration rate of 737 per 100,000 people in the highest, followed by 611 in Russia and 547 for St. Kitts and Nevis. In contrast, the incarceration rates in many Western industrial nations range around 100 per 100,000 people.

Groups advocating reform of U.S. sentencing laws seized on the latest U.S. prison population figures showing admissions of inmates have been rising even faster than the numbers of prisoners who have been released.

"The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. We rank first in the world in locking up our fellow citizens," said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports alternatives in the war on drugs.

"We now imprison more people for drug law violations than all of western Europe, with a much larger population, incarcerates for all offenses."

Ryan King, a policy analyst at The Sentencing Project, a group advocating sentencing reform, said the United States has a more punitive criminal justice system than other countries.

"We send more people to prison, for more different offenses, for longer periods of time than anybody else," he said.

Drug offenders account for about 2 million of the 7 million in prison, on probation or parole, King said, adding that other countries often stress treatment instead of incarceration.

Commenting on what the prison figures show about U.S. society, King said various social programs, including those dealing with education, poverty, urban development, health care and child care, have failed.

"There are a number of social programs we have failed to deliver. There are systemic failures going on," he said. "A lot of these people then end up in the criminal justice system."

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California, said the high prison numbers represented a proper response to the crime problem in the United States. Locking up more criminals has contributed to lower crime rates, he said.

"The hand-wringing over the incarceration rate is missing the mark," he said.

Scheidegger said the high prison population reflected cultural differences, with the United States having far higher crimes rates than European nations or Japan. "We have more crime. More crime gets you more prisoners."

Julie Stewart, president of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, cited the Justice Department report and said drug offenders are clogging the U.S. justice system.

"Why are so many people in prison? Blame mandatory sentencing laws and the record number of nonviolent drug offenders subject to them," she said.

Providing Treatment Vital to Decreasing Recidivism

Interviews with prisoners suggest that treatment is crucial to preventing released offenders from returning to prison -- perhaps even more important than transitional housing, finding a job, or other factors, according to the researcher who conducted the study.

Newswise reported March 13 that a researcher who spoke with 20 released prisoners who reoffended and were jailed again found that all of the interviewees said they had relapsed on alcohol or other drugs, and 15 blamed drugs for landing them back behind bars. The prisoners also identified drugs as the most significant barrier they faced to successful reintegration into society.

"Treatment for substance abuse is vital to reduce the recidivism rate," said study leader Lindsay A. Phillips of Albright College in Reading, Pa.

All of the prisoners were enrolled in prison treatment programs and said the programs were helpful, but said they felt disconnected from post-release treatment services. Two of the prisoners relapsed within hours of being released from prison, Phillips found, nine relapsed before ever looking for a job, and four blamed frustration over their lack of job prospects for their relapse.

"This research clearly supports aftercare and the need for increased coordination between treatment and criminal justice systems, because there was a sense of disconnection from other people and the community that emerged as a theme for participants," said Phillips.

"If reentry programs focus solely on case management and job attainment they will miss the vital role of substance abuse treatment and referral. This research not only identifies substance abuse treatment as imperative to successful reentry, but actually places the priority of this treatment above other commonly used strategies within the criminal-justice system."

Should LGBT inmates have their own prisons?

Because this worldwide debate could soon reach U.S. shores.

When compared to its more buttoned-down neighbors, Thailand is home to a gay community that speaks in a loud voice and commands a prominent position in society. But discrimination and violence remain, especially behind bars. So when the Department of Corrections opened a new building in September at Minburi prison on the outskirts of Bangkok to house only transgender inmates, it was presented as a victory for gay rights, an offer of refuge for a vulnerable population.

But some of the country’s activists were not so sure that the motives of corrections officials were all that enlightened. “There is a feeling that they are doing this not because they recognize the rights of LGBTI detainees,” says Paisarn Likhitpreechakul of Thailand’s Foundation for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights and Justice, “but because they want to manage them, these detainees, based on suspicion or feelings that they are causing certain problems.”

[Transgender prisoners] are put in fishbowl-style housing areas where people are deliberately brought into the unit to watch them change. - Chase Strangio, attorney at the ACLU

Are LGBT prisons good or bad for the inmates who live in them? The question is coming to the fore as a growing number of countries and localities follow Thailand’s example — including Turkey, which is due to open what may be the world’s first stand-alone LGBT penitentiary next year. Government officials say segregated prisons could curb the enormous problem of sexual abuse behind bars, as LGBT inmates tend to suffer higher rates of victimization. But can there truly be separate but equal treatment for these inmates? Even Turkey’s “pink prison” has faced an outcry that it just further stigmatizes gays. Countries in Latin America, Europe and North America have tried separating LGBT inmates with varying degrees of success.

The use of separate facilities based on sexual orientation has been around for more than a century. New York segregated effeminate gays in a “fag annex” as far back as the 1910s. George Chauncey wrote in Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 that “fairies” were kept away from the general population to prevent homosexuality from spreading as though it were a disease.

The corrections industry may have dropped the contagion argument, but segregation continues in the jails of most major American cities. A decade after it shut down its Rikers Island gay wing, New York opened a voluntary transgender wing in 2014, though it again is threatened with closure because of legal issues, according to Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union’s LGBT & AIDS Project. As of late September, 19 trans inmates were living in the voluntary unit in a lower Manhattan jail known as the Tombs, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Because of a court order, Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail has a gay wing. It subjects potential residents to a screening process that quizzes them on lingo such as “glory hole,” which often has the effect of weeding out Black and Latino applicants, according to research by University of California, Berkeley law professor Russell K. Robinson. In much of the country, though, jail and prison officials subject transgender inmates to a more drastic safety precaution — solitary confinement, which many experts consider to be its own form of abuse.

Under the right circumstances, activists say, segregation can be the right policy. According to Strangio, a “good” unit like the one in the Tombs in New York must be voluntary and provide access to prison services like a law library and health care. San Francisco won praise last year for moving from enforced segregation to allowing transgenders to choose where they are housed. But there are horror stories about bad units from around the country, particularly in the South. “Bad units are units that deliberately group people together for the purpose of mocking them, marking them to the nontrans prison population,” Strangio says. “People have to wear particular colored uniforms or bracelets [and] are put in fishbowl-style housing areas where people are deliberately brought into the unit to watch them change. These are egregious and would violate a host of other provisions of” the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

The global picture similarly is mixed. Jean-Sébastien Blanc of the Switzerland-based Association for the Prevention of Torture says that trans women in Argentina recently were moved to women’s prisons — ostensibly a good step, but they were not consulted. While it’s easy to point fingers at the discriminatory practices of segregation, the ultraviolent world of Latin American prisons means that sometimes separation for LGBT inmates is “a matter of life and death,” Blanc says. In Paraguay’s Tacumbu prison, the LGBT section is “not even a unit; it’s a couple of cells,” Blanc says. “And the living conditions are far worse than in the rest of the prison, which is already appalling.”

In Thailand, advocates claim that separation only papers over pervasive discrimination in the prison system. It also avoids deeper questions of why the inmates are there in the first place, as Thailand has one of the world’s highest incarceration rates and, as of last year, its prisons were at nearly 150 percent capacity. For Wannapong Yodmuang of the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand, a new prison wing is less encouraging than the pilot program in another men’s prison, where an LGBT-friendly policy overhaul is being conducted.

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