A new era of slavery

Devan Schulte, Writer

Since 1980, the United States prison population has quadrupled and now contains more than 2.4 million inmates. There are currently more African-Americans in the correctional system than were enslaved before the Civil War. Although these numbers may be quite shocking, the prison population in Pennsylvania should come as even more of a surprise to the states’ citizens as the incarceration rates have increased by 500 percent since 1980, boosting the inmate population to over 50,000. Thus, in the last 20 years, the government has been forced utilize their now $2.1 billion budget and has constructed 18 new prisons in order to attempt to accommodate the growing numbers. Despite the new infrastructure, Pennsylvania prisons continue to hold prisoners over capacity due to the enormous problem of mass incarceration. The current state of the prison system in our country, especially the United States, is completely unacceptable and requires sweeping systematic changes.

Lewisburg is located in the middle district of Pennsylvania, a district that bears 12 state institutions, nine federal institutions, and three federal penitentiaries. Thus, this middle district has one of the largest prisoner populations in the country. Not only is there an extremely large prisoner population in this area, but the Lewisburg Penitentiary is also the only one of its kind. It has a system based on a SMU (Special Management Unit), which was enacted in 2009 in an attempt to limit prison violence. As a result, prisoners are in lockdown 23 hours a day and forced to co-exist with another inmate in a cell that was intended for only one inmate. They are permitted no real contact with other inmates except for one hour in “cages” for recreation, where four to six prisoners are placed in very tight restraints. It is one of the only SMU prisons in the United States.

Although this system was designed to teach prisoners to get along with other people, its effects have been quite the opposite, and violence continues to erupt inside the penitentiary. Due to the inhumane conditions many prisoners face, the criminals that are not locked up for violent crimes often turn to violence as a means of survival. In other cases, the extreme conditions greatly inhibit the psychological well-being of prisoners, and mental health problems develop that are greatly ignored by the institution, if not exploited by other prisoners. Over 50 percent of prisoners are incarcerated due to drug-related crimes, yet the torture they experience in addition to the lack of interaction they are permitted with others often provokes violence.

The VIPER (Violence in Prisons Ends Rapidly) Coalition seeks to fix these injustices, not to argue whether or not these prisoners should be behind bars. Rather, the organization is dedicated to spreading awareness of the horrible treatment to prisoners, violations of their rights, and immense overcrowding. After one visit to a local prison, it is clear that the public is sheltered from the interlocking systems of oppression that contribute to the problem of mass incarceration. The public is also largely unaware of the horrific treatment that many prisoners experience that goes beyond any rightful consequence for their actions.

This massive population often goes unnoticed and underrepresented, and they continue to suffer behind bars. If the system continues to work as it currently does, the inmate population will continue to grow and the inhumane treatment will continue to violate rights that every human being (regardless of their offense) is entitled to. If you would like to support VIPER’s message and enact change in the prison system, start spreading awareness, having conversations, writing letters, and sharing your voice for those who have been silenced.

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