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The Connection Between Prison and Poverty
In many societies around the world, mass incarceration is rampant and disproportionately affects those living in poverty. In 2013, reports determined that more than 10 million impoverished people have undergone incarceration. This has led to a dampening of upward social mobility because even after prison convicts face the stigma of being a former felon, individuals who believed that their best option to rise from poverty was a life of crime will likely return to a community where their best survival option is criminal. A connection between prison and poverty emerges in developing countries where cyclical policies keep people at the bottom of the social hierarchy with no way out.

The Connection Between Prison and Poverty

Former U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston studied this prison-poverty connection. In 2018, he released his findings in a report that documented how overly harsh government policy can have a pronounced effect on impoverished offenders. Alston notes, “so-called fines and fees are piled up so that low-level infractions become immensely burdensome, a process that affects only the poorest members of society, who pay the vast majority of such penalties.” If someone fails to pay their debts, the government will often place restrictions on their driver’s license, making recidivism far more likely.

Pre-Trial Detention in Brazil

Brazil ranks as the country with the third-highest rate of incarceration, behind China and the U.S. Its prison population rises above 755,000. Like the United States, the developing country engages in pre-trial detention. Pretrial detention is the act of holding a person suspected of a crime without rights until a court date. However, poor people often stay in detention facilities longer than the wealthy. This is because they cannot afford the exorbitant cash bail that the wealthy can. A 2010 study found that hundreds stayed in jail several years past their planned release. Additionally, “irregularities” lead to the mistaken detainment of over 16,000 Brazilians. Pretrial detention inmates currently overcrowd Brazil’s prisons, which make up nearly a third of the inmate population.

The War on Drugs in Thailand

With the number of people incarcerated at 344,161, Thailand ranks as number six in the world when it comes to mass incarceration. Similar to Brazil, the country has its own struggles with prison and poverty. An unexpected explanation for Thailand’s overcrowded prisons is the American War on Drugs. In 1997, a financial crash forced many Thai people into unemployment. This economic despair led to an increase in the number of drug users. In 2003, the government chose to heavily police these now-impoverished citizens. While Thailand has backed away from violent crackdowns, the majority of arrests are still primarily drug offenses. To evade time in prison, wealthier people can pay the $1,300 in drug charges. In 2016, only 27% of first-time offenders managed to avoid recidivism, as those in poverty could not afford bail.

Penal Reform International

While the connection between prison and poverty seems deep-rooted, it is still capable of transformation. Organizations have worked to alleviate the flaws of prison systems throughout the globe through educational, political and relief efforts to break the cycle. Penal Reform International is one such group.

Founded in 1989 with a focus on rehabilitation, Penal Reform International (PRI) works with the United Nations and other organizations to advocate for fair treatment of people in the criminal justice system. PRI observes detention centers and offers solutions to systemic abuse. For example, PRI studied the lives of the female offender population in the country of Georgia. The report found that they detained over a third for non-violent drug offenses. About 40% of those questioned committed crimes for financial reasons, while 80% were also mothers. Among those who received a release from prison, more than half had trouble finding employment due to their record, while most never obtained any kind of rehabilitative assistance. Between 2016 and 2019, PRI created a project providing services to Georgian women prisoners. Services included legal aid, counseling, business grants and healthcare assistance. Respondents expressed that the project has greatly improved their mental wellbeing, preparedness and self-esteem.

Prison and poverty can intertwine when the prison system values money over people. Nevertheless, learning about these issues surrounding developing countries can shed light on the flaws in one’s own.

– Zachary Sherry
Photo: Flickr

Over-incarceration and Poverty
The era of mass incarceration, or as others call it, over-incarceration, is not solely an issue within the United States. Countries around the world are also experiencing a rise in incarceration rates. With the rise of global poverty comes the rise of imprisonment. Sadly, incarceration disproportionately affects people living in poverty. This system of retribution creates a conveyor belt of crime. When authorities arrest people living in poverty more often, it becomes more challenging for targeted individuals to provide for them and their families and secure a living income; as a result, many felons may resort to crime out of necessity. These factors contribute to the phenomenon many countries are experiencing including high rates of recidivism and the number of ex-felons that authorities re-arrest. This cycle of crime is continuing and many impoverished are behind bars; people must address the relationship between over-incarceration and poverty.

The Relationship Between Over-Incarceration and Poverty

The estimated number of prisoners worldwide was 10.35 million in 2018, but the number is most likely 11 million as there are a number of countries that have a difficult time collecting data. Eleven million may not seem like a lot compared to the over 7 billion people in the world, but that is only the number of people in prison and not the millions on probation who face difficulties surviving after prison. On top of that, a prison sentence is hardly an individual experience. When authorities arrest someone so they enter prison, it affects their family and often makes it more difficult to obtain a livable income. Men make up the majority of the prison population, and in countries where people see men as the breadwinners of the family, this puts stress on the family the men leave behind. Over-incarceration refers to not just the imprisonment of someone, but also the group of people their imprisonment affects.

Pre-Trial Detentions Across the World

Much of over-incarceration is due to the stigmatization of drug users and the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders, as well as many countries, like the U.S., using pre-trial detention. Around 30 percent of prison populations have not received a conviction. Pre-trial detention is a major reason for why criminal justice affects the impoverished more than the wealthy. A lack of legal assistance and expensive bails lead people to enter pre-trial detention.

Many countries have attempted to find alternatives to pre-trial detention. In Bolivia, the government has implemented a limit on the length of pre-trial detention. Similarly, Egypt is currently attempting to pass a bill capping pretrial sentences at six months. Colombia has put an emphasis on expediting the low-level cases, to cut down the number of prisoners who have not obtained a conviction. There are efforts around the world focusing on criminal justice reform as a way to create a more equal system.

Over-Incarceration Reforms Worldwide

 To reduce the relationship between over-incarceration and poverty, many countries have looked to focus on rehabilitation, using social integration and training. In this way, prison helps ex-felons return to normal life and find employment. Behind the U.S. and China, Brazil has the third-largest prison population with over 690,000 prisoners. Seeing the mass incarceration levels, the Association for the Protection and Assistance to Convicts (APAC), opened its first prison in 1972. The APAC looks to rehabilitate the people that enter its prisons, referring to those inside as recovering people. A system such as the one the APAC created marks a change in consciousness towards criminal justice systems around the world. Instead of punishment, rehabilitation drives the system by helping the marginalized seamlessly transition into normal life. The APAC’s prisons allow its members freedom, giving them the keys to their own cells and privileges to wash their clothes, cook their own meals and study what they please. Nineteen countries around the world have begun to implement similar prisons.

Penal Reform International’s Work With Recidivism

As Penal Reform International states, “Criminal justice policies affect nearly every aspect of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including poverty, food security, human rights, health and well-being, education, social inclusion, gender equality, employment, environmental issues, human security, access to justice, inclusive political processes, and governance and the rule of law.” Penal Reform International conducts work worldwide to help promote fair criminal justice practices. Its focus is on promoting rehabilitation and fair treatment by preventing torture and ensuring a speedy and fair trial for alleged felons. The group works with intergovernmental organizations to provide more rights to offenders and victims, as well as assist policymakers, criminal justice authorities and civil society to help de-link the relationship between over-incarceration and poverty.

Jared Hynes
Photo: Flickr