prison reform
With the wealth of knowledge we have access to today, many are realizing our country's need to improve its criminal justice system. (Illustration by Francesca Mahaney, Pratt Institute)
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prison reform

Greater awareness of the problem means that the end of mass incarceration in America might come sooner than we think.

With docu-series, YouTube channels and heavy social influencers exposing prison conditions and the lives of inmates, there has been a growing amount of sympathy for lives behind bars. This humanization process may spark a prison reform movement like never before and makes the idea of effective change in the criminal justice system much more promising.

Prison reform has never been an attractive proposition in America because the majority of constituents believe that every prisoner is a monstrous being who deserves to be alienated from society for committing a terrible crime. Not enough people have protested for change.

The stigma for prisoners is based on common misconceptions. Docu-series such as the “Kalief Browder Story” and the limited drama series “When They See Us” have proven that wrongful convictions and false accusations can land an innocent citizen in jail. After learning about the aforementioned stories among several others, Americans have grown curious to how a supposedly fair system is the one to blame for innocent men, women and children being wrongfully convicted on multiple occasions.

Highlighting true prison stories and court cases challenges people to take action towards prison reform. Mega-mogul Kim Kardashian-West has channeled her makeup-business skills into legal advocacy. In recent months, the reality star’s advocacy and aid from her legal team have helped victims such as Alice Marie Johnson, Jeffrey Stringer, Jamelle Carraway and others gain freedom after serving several years of a life sentence for nonviolent drug offenses.

That’s not all the superstar has done. After speaking with several former prisoners, Kardashian-West sheds light on the lack of resources available to former prisoners in regards to housing and job transportation.  In June, the mother of four spoke at a “second chance hiring and reentry event” where she “announced a partnership with unnamed ride-share companies that would give formerly incarcerated people gift cards so they can take cars to and from job interviews.”

The famous social influencer is a firm believer that everyone deserves a second chance. Kardashian-West also speaks on the fact that there are several inmates serving a disproportionate amount of time in prison facilities for nonviolent and first-time drug offenses. Her involvement in prison reform and criminal law has gained much attention in the media. She’s sparked a wave of empathy among the general public for current prisoners who are being excessively punished relative to the magnitude of their crime. Popular docu-series and reform efforts motivate American constituents to contribute to the reform movement.

After paying their debt to society, it becomes very difficult for ex-prisoners to revert back to mainstream society, especially if they were incarcerated for an excessive amount of years. Many employers refuse to hire ex-felons, which makes it nearly impossible to afford the cost of living. However, many ex-prisoners have found a way to live comfortably.

Joe Guerrero’s “After Prison Show” reveals how he managed to survive while serving time in prison for seven and a half years. The ex-prisoner turned YouTube sensation has gained 1.2 million subscribers from making videos regarding prison life. From sharing 10 prison-known ramen noodle recipes to baking apple pie in the microwave, Guerrero has built a huge following by giving a quirky approach to the living conditions inside of the penitentiary. In fact, his comical anecdotes and charismatic nature is the complete opposite image of a violent criminal who has served time in the pen.

Guerrero is not the only good guy who has decided to make a living from the social platform after being rejected by society. In 2016, former felon Josh launched “Lockdown 23&1,” a channel where the ex-con tells stories of what he witnessed while serving over eight years in prison and provides tips on how to survive inside the jail walls. The YouTube personality is currently posting videos for 395,000 subscribers and has developed 44.4 million views since the channel’s first video.

Prison YouTube shows have grown popular among viewers who want to know how their loved one is doing while incarcerated, people who want to study prison life before beginning their own sentence and viewers who have always wondered how prisoners handle being locked up.

Shows similar to Guerrero’s and Josh’s have developed a sense of humanity amongst a large audience for the 2.2 million citizens currently serving time. The docu-series “Girls Incarcerated: Young and Locked Up” reveals the lives of young teenage girls as they serve time in a juvenile correctional facility.

Teenage inmates of a correctional facility in Indiana struggle with authority, academics, mental illness and sexuality as they attempt to cope with the fact that their youth is being wasted behind bars. The series provides teenage inmates with a platform to express how being locked up makes them feel as they reflect on the time they broke the law. Viewers of the show often witness young girls displacing their frustration and anger through violence. Currently on its second season, it is evident that several of the girls feel hopeless that their lives will turn around for the better, being that the majority of the facilities’ population is filled with female minors who lack positive role models.

“Jailbirds” is another docu-series that unveils inmates adapting to the living environment and culture of the Sacramento County Jail. Featuring the science behind prison, “Toilet Talk” and watching two prisoners get married, “Jailbirds” gives insight to how people adjust to life in the pen.

Exposing the inside of prison cells and knowing the emotional effect it has on former prisoners has allowed citizens to grow concern for victims of the justice system. Citizens are not only empathizing but are also beginning to notice that, in some cases, the justice system often fails to operate in a “just” manner.

Revealing true prison stories and criminal cases is the first step to prison reform. Yes, several people who are currently serving time have committed a heinous act against the law. However, documenting, sharing and advocating for the lesser known victims of the criminal justice system teaches the population that many are not bad people. Reversing the stigma that all prisoners are deservingly serving jail time is a necessary step to prison reform. Once people understand this fact, the fight for prison reform will no longer be a pointless cry but merely an uphill battle.

Such battle weapons include ”The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.” Since the law’s enactment, there has been a reduction in the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine required to activate federal criminal penalties. The law also reduces the racial disparity between African Americans who are often arrested for crack cocaine offenses. In December 2018, the “First Step Act” was signed into law, which allowed more than 1,000 inmates to have their sentences reduced.

Such laws are effective in tackling mass incarceration but fails to review the cases that resulted in wrongful convictions and is only applicable to those in federal custody.

With more people knowing that police brutality, mental deterioration and recidivism are symptoms of an unjust criminal system, the fight for prison reform grows stronger. The use of docu-series, YouTube channels and social platforms sparks a conversation about the harsh effects the prison system can have on one’s livelihood. Now that the prison world is unhidden, prison reform may come sooner than we think.

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