According to the World Prison Brief, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, a statistic that students and faculty discussed on Thursday in the Mandela Room.
The talk, which focused on prison reform and incarceration in the United States, featured a panel of four professors who discussed their research on imprisonment. Anthony Reeves, associate professor of philosophy and director of the philosophy, politics and law program at Binghamton University, said he organized the event to tackle questions on criminal law and the social issues that surround it.
“I think it is safe to say that, in all of U.S. history, it has been clear to many across the political spectrum that these sorts of questions cannot — given the current criminal justice state — be avoided,” Reeves said.
John Pfaff, professor of law at Fordham University and a panelist, described his research on sentencing laws and their effects on incarceration.
“We substantially over-punish violence,” Pfaff said. “If the United States is going to have any goal other than having the world’s highest incarceration, then we are, at some point, going to have to punish people convicted for violence less.”
Charles Goodman, professor of philosophy and Asian and Asian American studies at BU, said the current criminal justice system often fails to secure justice and casts criminals as less than human.
“There are some people who actively want criminals to suffer — who think that that is justice,” Goodman said. “Another common problem is the public indifference to the welfare goals for those who have broken laws — they only care about the welfare interests of the law-abiding people.”
The panelists also discussed private prisons’ profit margins, the natural or environmental causes behind crimes and violence and the conditions incarcerated people endure while awaiting trial.
Juanita Díaz-Cotto, professor of sociology, women’s studies and Latin American and Caribbean area studies (LACAS) and director of the LACAS program at BU, said it is also important to recognize gendered biases within criminal law. According to Díaz-Cotto, men are more likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes, while women are more often incarcerated for drug-related crimes.
“Once they pushed the ‘War on Drugs’ in the 70s and 80s, at one point 80 percent of the Latina women in New York state [prisons] and 70 percent of black women were incarcerated for drug-related crimes,” Díaz-Cotto said. “The ‘War on Drugs’ has been a major contributor of the increase in the incarceration of women.”
Joshua Price, professor of sociology at BU, spoke about the conditions and challenges of local jails, such as the Broome County Jail, which has seen eight deaths in the last seven years, leading to community protests.
“Here at our county jail, there are about 500 people in the jail, but 70 percent of the people there have not yet been convicted of anything — they’re just waiting for their trials,” Price said. “Sometimes people are there for a super long time. I knew someone who had died in jail in 2015, while he was waiting there for two months.”
Leisa Rockelein, a junior triple-majoring in philosophy, political science and philosophy, politics and law, said she thinks the incarceration panel was relevant to her studies and future career path.
“I found it really educational in seeing how widespread issues within incarceration are,” Rockelein said. “I think it was really helpful toward my future studies because in classes we always talk about giving punishment and why [we] should or shouldn’t, but we never discuss the punishment itself — so now I have a stronger understanding in that area, too.”
Melissa Brosnan, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, said she was interested in hearing different perspectives on what incarceration could look like in the U.S..
“It shined light on how, compared to other countries, the United States has the most people imprisoned and the worst conditions, and levels of danger, for those prisoners,” Brosnan said. “Which leads to the question: Is our prison system actually helping those inside? Or is it just promoting more crime, as those prisoners struggle to stay alive, sane and well?”
According to Arsenije Markicevic, a junior quadruple-majoring in philosophy, physics, economics and philosophy, politics and law, the panelists connected their discussion to the dehumanization of incarcerated people several times throughout the event.
“The fact that victims believed that criminals were punished too harshly, show that the United States’ prisons and criminal justice system is flawed and is too cruel and that criminals deserve to have their rights as humans upheld more,” Markicevic said.