Saturday Morning Incarceration

Geekdom knows the face of evil. We see it everyday, whenever we pick up a comic book or turn on a video game. There is always some megalomaniac trying to conquer the world, blow up the city, or even just steal the princess and take her back to his castle for purposes we feel it best not to question. However, unlike the villains in our books, movies, and games, most people in prison have never donned a mask to lead a band of ninjas, dabbled in the dark magical arts, or have built even one weather controlling doomsday device. No, the criminals in our prisons are not Saturday morning cartoon characters. They are nothing but ordinary, run of the mill people, no matter how much we sometimes try to pretend they aren’t.

B-Man and the Masters of the Congressverse
Last week, President Barrack Obama commuted the sentence of nearly 90 non violent offenders, most of them jailed due to drug charges. The people who received the commutations were well behaved inmates who served at least 10 years of their prison sentence, and who would have received less severe punishments for their offenses under today’s laws.

The United States has about 5% of the world’s population, but almost a quarter of its incarcerated population, but then again maybe we just produce more Cobra Commanders than Uruguay? Somehow we at The NYRD doubt that is the case. According to a 2011 Boston University study the USA jails 716 people per 100,000. That is the highest rate of inmates per capita in the world, beating out St. Kitts & Nevis, Seychelles, Rwanda and Cuba. The only statistics we should be beating Rwanda and Cuba in, are: “hot dogs sold” and “Star Trek conventions held,” not prison population. In fact, the closest developed country to the US is Russia at 487 inmates per 100,000 citizens, and no offense to our Russian friends, but we cannot believe that America is producing more villains than the former Soviet Union, especially considering their current leadership.

That sad part is that the argument can be made that our current corrections system does work, as long as you ignore its rapidly growing population. So it is not usually a pressing issue on the lips of many leaders, both animated or otherwise. The amount of inmates in the US began a sharp increase in 1979. The year before Empire Strikes Back was released saw only about 314,000 people behind bars. As of last year, the year before The Force Awakens is to be released, the numbers stood at about 3.2 million people behind bars, with African Americans making up the slight majority of the incarcerated population. A little less than half of that total inmates are people charged with non violent offenses, majorly drug charges, but also burglary, larceny, fraud, and public disorder.

Coincidentally, with the exception of a few fluctuations in the 80’s crime has been on the decrease ever since. This could be attributed to a number of factors, economic, social, even technological. Video games and the Internet do a lot more to distract potential criminal behavior than most people give them credit for, but that is for another article. According to the US Disaster Center, there were only about 9.8 million crimes committed in 2013 for a US population of over 316 million. The US is safer than it has ever been, but is that due to mass incarceration? Realistically, it probably has to do with a lot of factors, but if incarceration is our answer than we have to be prepared to build more prison, and that is going to get expensive.

Estimates tend to vary, but even conservative numbers say that it costs anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 dollars per year to house an inmate, depending on the level of security needed. According to a bill proposed by Congressmen Scott and Sensenbrenner, since 1980 Congress has added an estimated 2,000 new crimes to the books and imprisonment rates has grown 518 percent. Federal spending on the prison system has increased from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion dollars, adjusted for inflation. Their SAFE Bill is trying to curtail over criminalization and reduces recidivism. A similar bill, called the Smarter Sentencing Act is also going through the Senate. They are worth checking out, because even if you believe that all criminals deserve to be behind bars, imagine what the US could do with even a fraction of that money returned. Some estimates even say it currently costs every American household roughly $500 a year. Those dollar amounts only stand to increase in coming years, because for all its benefits, it is starting to look like our system is very good at taking low level offenders and making them hardened criminals.

Teenage Addicted Repeat Offenders
President Obama’s act is a great first step, but more needs to be done to reform a failing prison system. First and foremost, Obama has been pushing that drug crimes should be treated more like a public health risk than a crime, and according to a Pew Research Study, 67% of Americans, on both sides of the isle, agree with him. In fact, more than 25 states, in both the north and south, have eased their laws on drug crimes over the past five years, but the Federal government is still trying to catch up.

Much like the war with Cobra, the “War on Drugs” has became a self perpetuating machine. Harsh penalties and long prison sentences often affect lower income families dramatically more than those in upper income brackets, even if drug use itself is fairly proportional across economic lines. Unfair incarceration has the potential to exacerbate problems in the home, often taking away bread winning husbands or wives needed to support the family, and leaving children without one or both parental influences to keep them clear of gangs and the very drugs that the government was trying to fight in the first place. Thankfully, this has lessened with the amending of some of the “three strikes” laws for many states, most notably California where more than 3,000 previously life-sentenced, non violent inmates became eligible to apply for parole. Unfortunately, prison itself has a way of institutionalizing even the nicest of non violent offenders.

In many ways our prison system is a lot like a Saturday morning cartoon. It is fairly predictable, poorly animated, and for certain people it repeats like clockwork. In fact the US prison system has become like Arkham Asylum, a revolving door where criminals are often released only to be delivered back into captivity by a man who may or may not be dressed as a bat. Recidivism has declined in recent years, because of improvements in state laws, but current studies still show that about 40% of people released from prison will be arrested again within three years of release. Though many federal and some state facilities currently offer job training and societal reintegration preparation, the push is not universal, as many of these expanded programs cost money and poorer state systems, or privately funded corporate prisons are less inclined to invest.

G.I. Jobless
Prisons have another aspect in common with our beloved cartoons, many of them were created to make money. There are now 130 private prisons who rake in a combined 3.3 billion dollars a years. For them, a decrease in the prison population means a decrease in their profit margins. That means they have a lot less incentive to not properly prepare criminals for retuning to society, and they have a slew of lobbyist in Washington to make sure their voices are heard. In 2010, the private prison firm, GEO, and its affiliates donated more than $33,500 to political action committees. the whole thing is like some plot cooked up by Skeletor in his spare time, a convoluted system of harsh punishment that more often than not fails to achieve its end goal. More to the point, much like the plots of cartoon villains, we just seem to accept it as fact. We buy into the system and just take it for what it is and never really think to look deeper.

No one is saying that these offenders should not be punished for their crime. Everyone needs a time out once in a while, but the problem with the current system is that for non violent and other first time inmates incarceration often leans too far to the side of punishment and not enough to the side of rehabilitation. The only thing the Department of Corrections is actually correcting is how to make those low level offenders into better criminals. Currently, going into prison is a lot like joining Cobra. Even if you don’t know anything about how to hold a gun that shoots blue lasers, they will teach you that and a multitude of other criminal skills. Many first time offenders pick up new criminal traits, new violent tendencies, and gang affiliations as a simple way of surviving while inside the system, and in some cases those are the only job skills they can turn to after their release.

The fault does not lie entirely with the prison system alone, but also our own perceptions of criminals in society. Many federal and private companies ask job applicants for their criminal history, even if the job is low-level and for non sensitive work. Checking off a box that says you have been in jail is often a death sentence to any ex-convict’s job prospects. So with no where to go, even if they have the job skills, many former inmates are forced to return to crime to survive. Even worse, inmates who are exonerated are often just kicked out of prison with no money and no access to the same transitional programs that guilty criminals receive upon their release. There comes a point where if you tell Bebop and Rocksteady that they cannot work in the mail room, you should not be surprised if they go back to henching for Shredder. The pay may not be great, but at least they don’t feel as if they are being judged all the time by the other members of the Foot Clan.

More than Meets the Eye
Maybe part of our problem is our fascination with villains. After all, without a great villain the heroes we know and love seem somehow diminished. Our interest in the evil and the twisted happens for many reasons. Fictional villains represent power and freedom. They act as a vessel for us to contain and face our fears. In a way they help us to confront the unknown and even give us a mechanism of release for our own anger and devilish impulses. We rarely cheer for Megatron, but in a way we encourage his evil. We want to see a real villain do evil things, if only because it challenges our heroes to be that much better.

Thus, maybe in a way we have transferred some of that psychological need to the real-life criminals in our society. We want to believe in the existence of good, so therefore we must also have to believe in the existence of evil. You do not get He-Man without Skeletor. There is no Lion-O without Mumm-ra, no Ninja Turtles without Shredder and we would argue also Krang, but that is a debate for another day. Unfortunately, real humans are never so black and white. In a way we are all a little good and a little bad.

If we treat all offenders as if they criminals, than we cannot be surprised if they one day try to kidnap a world leader and demand a ridiculous ransom, because after all, we were the ones that expected them to be villains all along.

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