During my four stints in U.S. federal prisons, I’ve witnessed the unconquerable human response of long-term inmates when a newcomer arrives. An unscripted choreography occurs, and the new prisoner finds that other women will help her through the trauma of adjustment to being locked up for many months or years. Halfway through a three-month sentence myself, I’m saddened to realize that I’ll very likely adapt to an outside world for which these women, and prisoners throughout the U.S. prison system, are often completely invisible.
U.S. state and federal prison populations have risen, since 1988, from 600,000 to an estimated 1,600,000 in 2012. This trend shows inhumane behavior on the part of lawmakers and myriad employees who benefit from the so-called “criminal justice” system. But our entire society bears responsibility for what now can aptly be labeled a prison-industrial complex. Constructing prisons and filling prisons with people who posed little or no threat to our security didn’t happen clandestinely, without our consent. We watched, mesmerized perhaps, and allowed ourselves to become a country with the world’s largest prison system.