Prisons and prejudice – the reality of the American justice system


In 2013, the comedy drama Orange is the New Black became a Netflix hit. It follows the story of Piper Chapman, a woman who is imprisoned for her role in a drug smuggling ring almost ten years prior to her incarceration. The programme focuses on the relationships that are formed within the all-female prison, as well as the violent hostility that occurs between the inmates and different prison gangs. Interestingly, in this fictional prison there is a very clear divide between the white, the black and the Hispanic women. For the most part, they are segregated by means of separate dormitories and bathrooms, and few inmates associate with women of a skin colour different to their own.

But is this really an accurate representation of the American correctional system or just a satirical portrait of the racial issues that have tainted the history of the United States? America has the highest number of prisoners and the highest rate of imprisonment of any country in the world – approximately one in 100 adults are currently incarcerated – so while OITNB continues to receive critical acclaim for its humorous portrayal of the characters’ daily lives, the reality of prison life is no laughing matter. Unfortunately, it seems that the question of race, which the show touches upon, may be more of an issue than one might expect in a post-civil rights America.

Black people account for roughly 13% of all American citizens, and yet, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 37.1% of inmates are black. Arguably, these statistics appear to suggest that the disparity is due to black people being more likely to commit a crime, but I strongly believe that it is due to the racial discrimination that still exists within the American “justice” system.

In 2012, the FBI reported that black people accounted for 28.1% of total arrests for that year. The majority of which were for property crimes such as burglary and car theft, as well as drug abuse violations. However, these figures are significantly lower than those for the same crimes committed by the 69.3% of white criminals. So why is there such a high percentage of black people in US prisons?

The justice system consists of several tiers, from the initial arrest to final sentencing, and each of these tiers arguably augments racial tension. The first issue is that police operations are still aimed primarily at minority groups. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union discovered that 42% of Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams were deployed to execute a search warrant on black people. The unfortunate truth is that many white people in America still believe that black people are more likely to be armed and therefore more likely to use a weapon. The recent shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer has brought police brutality into the spotlight. This young man had no previous criminal convictions and some witnesses have claimed that he had his hands above his head in the universal sign of surrender. His killing sparked riots in Ferguson, Missouri, with many people taking to the streets to protest against the unfair treatment of black people by the police.

If a case goes to trial, the jury’s decision can also be racially motivated. In 1985, Professor Johnson of Cornell University reviewed a dozen mock-jury studies and concluded that white people were more likely to find a black defendant guilty than a white defendant for the same crime. However, she found that black people had the same bias towards white defendants. A study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2012 confirmed much of this research: all-white juries find black defendants guilty more frequently than white defendants. A solution would be to ensure that juries are comprised of people from diverse racial backgrounds, but, as black people are a minority group in America, this is not a feasible option.

The picture doesn’t look any better when a defendant is found guilty and sentenced. In 2013, the US Sentencing Committee revealed that prison sentences for black men were, on average, nearly 20% longer than those for white men convicted of similar crimes. Surely the fact that the Supreme Court has restored judicial discretion in sentencing has only served to exacerbate this racial gap; the federal district judges are no longer required to impose a sentence according to the federal sentencing guidelines, and this has led to criticism that the system is open to racial discrimination. Two thirds of black people in the US believe that the criminal justice system is still biased against them, as opposed to just 25% of white people. Until this gap in perception of bias ceases to exist it seems unlikely that any change will occur.

Finally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that between 2005 and 2010 more than three quarters of released prisoners reoffended within five years, and so the whole process is set in motion again. Until America can truly begin to shake off their racial prejudices and ensure that a person’s skin colour has no bearing on the justice they receive, they cannot claim to be a fair and democratic society. Police brutality must not be tolerated, trials must not be biased and judges must be held accountable for the sentences they pass to ensure that everyone receives the same treatment no matter what their race.

The portrayal of different racial groups in Orange is the New Black has certainly made its viewers a lot more aware about the politics of sentencing and prison life, but it only brushes upon the surface of these issues. The 14th Amendment to the US constitution states that “no state…shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws.” It’s time that America wakes up to the harsh reality of racial discrimination within the justice system and upholds the values it claims to stand for.





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