On Tuesday, January 24, YAL member Cameron Gill stood in the lobby of Litchfield
Towers, the largest dormitory complex at the University of Pittsburgh, dressed in an old-fashioned black-and-white-striped prisoner uniform and holding cell bars made of spray-painted PVC piping in front of him. As garish, and admittedly humorous, as this spectacle may have been, the issue of which Cameron and his fellow Pitt YAL member David Nelson were attempting to spread awareness is deadly serious.
YAL members distributed club materials, collected signatures, and spread awareness about America’s out of control incarceration rate and the need for both prison reform and an end to the war on drugs, along with promoting a club-sponsored showing of the related documentary The House I Live In.
A simple Google search reveals that the American incarceration rate was measured at 716 per 100,000 Americans, and despite only having around 4.4 percent of the nation’s population, the US houses 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 2,220,300 adults incarcerated in 2013, along with nearly 5 million on probation or parole.
The causes for this are not hard to see. The slow-motion socioeconomic train wreck that has been America’s War on Drugs put control of an entire market sector into the hands of common criminals. America’s inner cities have devolved into warzones between increasingly well-equipped, well-organized gangs and urban police forces that are progressively beginning to resemble specialized military units straight from the pages of Judge Dredd. As a result, with every bust, raid, and crackdown of increasing volume and severity, the innocents caught in the crossfire fade more and more into the background.
There are many government policies whose value can be characterized as dubious at best. Not only is America’s drug policy behind the times, but it is also actively harming large swaths of the country’s population. We can only hope that changing public attitudes on nonviolent drug offenders lead to common sense reform in the near future.