I recently interviewed journalist Todd Pitock, who writes on prisons in the current issue of The Saturday Evening Post. We discussed why the United States has become the leader in incarcerated citizens, and his experiences with the subject. Pitock has been focusing on this subject for much of his career as a journalist, and was actually jailed overnight in South Africa at one point for trying to report on their system.
I really wanted to blame Reagan on this issue, but unfortunately, Pitock explained he’s not the only culprit here. The United States currently has around 2 million prisoners. Many of these prisoners are in jail due to drug-related offenses, but Pitock explained that it’s not simply due to Reagan’s War on Drugs. Pitock explained that the drug-related aspect of it actually started before Reagan, with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, in 1973, who enacted: “legislation that created mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of narcotics — about the same as a sentence for second-degree murder. The statutes became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws,” as explained by Time Magazine.
Rockefeller was a liberal-leaning Republican, but Pitock explained this is not a party affiliated tendency. “Liberals and conservatives have both tried to be more Roman than the Romans,” he explained. Both sides have made strong efforts since the 1970’s to be tough on drugs, and where they once spoke of helping these people get better, most of the focus has gone on putting them in prison. Bill Clinton, in 1994, enacted the three-strike law that puts such prisoners in jail for life upon their third Federal offense, and he’s not the only one who’s gone harsh on such things.
“Obama has been [more harsh] on dealing with illegal immigrants than Bush was,” Pitock claims. There is a sense in our government that you cannot appear weak on such issues, and these people often go to the other extreme.
Pitock also claims that the reason is not drugs alone. Many of these prisoners are in for drug-related offenses, but often the drug culture itself is what causes their imprisonment. “Homicides over drugs, and theft,” he explains. The reason we see less incarcerations in places like China is because it is a strict autocratic state. He says places like China, Libya, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan have built “prisons in people’s minds.” Due to their inherent lack of freedom in these places, they are often too afraid to act out. Essentially our freedom has created citizens more willing to risk keeping it.
Pitock explained that many of the prisoners he’s encountered are on the path to cleaning up their act. He told me one story about how one group of prisoners wouldn’t start eating until he did while he was interviewing them at lunch. “[Some of these people] are very delightful people,” he says, also acknowledging that many are not. He points out the a decent amount of them are “charismatic, fun guys.” Where this group of incarcerated people has been failed is in our ability, as a country, to make rehabilitation more accessible and focused on. Until we highlight ways to improve these people’s education and opportunity, we will continue to keep putting them in time out.