What are some of the political issues involving prisoners in the United States?

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This is a massive question, and there are many, many answers to it, as prisons and prisoners are an inherently political issue, one that frequently comes up during elections and candidate debates.

Among the political issues is the efficacy of prisons—that is, do prisons actually deter crime? This leads to another question, which is the nature of prisons. Are they meant to be punitive or to actually reform prisoners? If the latter, then the question becomes, how can prisons be improved so that they are actually serving the prisoners, rather than harming them? Many politicians feel they need to take a "tough on crime" (sometimes coded as "law and order") approach in order to show their strength and appeal to the law enforcement community as well as those, often on the right, who are concerned about public safety.

A major political issue in recent years is that proponents of prison reform claim that the prison system is racist and discriminates against the black community and other communities of color. They see this as the expression of a larger problem in our society: entrenched racism and white supremacy. The key text for this point of view is Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, an influential and much-discussed new book. Anyone interested in this topic needs to have a passing knowledge of the book and her argument. Other texts that should be considered are John F. Pffaf's Locked In: The True Cause of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, which offers a slight rebuke to Alexander, and Ta-Neshi Coates's essay "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," which can be found at The Atlantic and in his book We Were Eight Years in Power.

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One issue is whether a state chooses to use public or private prisons. The state can argue that the private sector provides better services at less cost; however, the private prison system has been criticized in the United States due to staffing issues and using low-quality vendors to provide services to the prisoners. While there is little sympathy for most serious offenders, most people want to see prisons run humanely yet efficiently.

Another issue is who is incarcerated. People of color, especially Black and Latino men, are arrested more often than their white counterparts and are often given longer sentences. Upon release, it is often difficult for a prisoner to re-enter society, thus leading to rates of recidivism in which someone spends much of their adult years being in and out of prisons. This can lead to long-term poverty and other issues for families who have had members in prison. It can create a cycle of incarceration.

Another issue is prisoner safety and well-being. Many prisons offer educational and rehabilitative programs in order to help the prisoner transition back into society. Another issue is managing the prisoners while they are incarcerated. This means adequately staffing the prison with mental health experts, as well as security. Another issue is where to house prisoners. Is it safe to have prisoners mingling in a general population, or should they be isolated except for times where they can be directly supervised? How much contact should prisoners be allowed to the outside world? How should prisoners who break the laws inside the prison be punished? What supports, if any, should a prisoner have in transitioning back to the outside world? All of these issues fall under maintaining the well-being of prisoners.

Ideally, prison prepares the incarcerated person with a new life when they are released after paying their debt to society. Prison was meant as a way to rehabilitate members of society who broke the law. Many issues prisoners face are tied to the maintenance of prisons themselves. Prisons in the United States today are chronically understaffed and do little to prepare all of their members for life on the outside.

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