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U.S. prison system in need for change

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On Jan. 24, Kynesha Grant died from complications from a brain tumor in the custody of a state corrections facility outside of Erie, Pennsylvania. On Dec. 28, Grant had a doctor’s appointment canceled. Two days later, she was unresponsive during roll call, and she faced a 15 day punishment that caused her Jan. 9 request for a CT scan to be denied. Five days later, she filed another request for a CT scan that said “I am very tired of suffering. I need some help. Please.”

It took until Jan. 23 for Grant to be taken to a hospital. For two years, she complained of crippling headaches, and the corrections facility kept insisting that she allow her medication — Topamax, a common migraine medication — to take effect. Since her death a little over a month ago, Grant’s friends, fellow inmates, and relatives are pushing for reform in the justice system because of the unfair treatment Grant faced.

Early in Feb., a detention center in Brooklyn lost heat, light, and hot water. The inmates were all kept under lockdown, and the utilities were in a state of dysfunction for almost an entire week. A few days before that, and just a few days after Grant’s passing, there were reports of an inmate in Indiana who died in police custody. Before that, there were reports of inmates dying for various reasons in Springfield, Massachusetts, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, and Orleans Parish, Louisiana. These five who died in police custody were in their 20’s or 30’s with a drug addiction — from prescription medication to opiates — that landed them in prison, and none of them were given proper medical treatment.

There are a few other issues with the current prison system. A recent Congressional report stated that there was a culture of rampant sexual harassment and assault in federal prison systems. The United States holds the most prisoners out of any nation on the planet, around 500,000 people more than an autocratic nation with three times our population. One in five of those prisoners are locked up for non-violent drug offenses, with most being held in state or local jails: at best, low-level dealers in much larger systems. And the people held in custody can be forced to work for pennies on the hour, which includes all of the immigrants in ICE detention centers. 465,000 people are held without a conviction according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

The United States is dependent on the incarceration of millions for an industry that is worth $629 million in profit last year according to NBC. That means each private, federal prison, supposedly centers of rehabilitation and reintegration, made around $60 million in profit last year. Prison workers are often forced to manufacture products for the parent company of the private prison corporation, and those products are sold for the profit of the investors. At best, the system takes advantage of people in disadvantaged positions, and at worst, it systemically robs millions of their livelihoods, and thousands of their lives.

I can go on with statistics and journalism about the lack of accountability that the criminal justice system has faced for their role in harming prisoners. Ultimately, the political question comes down to a moral question that is dependent on a belief in the role of prison. Are prisons designed to rehabilitate prisoners? Are jails reserved for those who have a legitimate possibility of committing the crime? And is it ethical to make a profit on the prison system?

I think that, at the least, there need to be major overhauls of the prison system to ensure that loss of life is minimized. But it’s also unethical to profit from the punishment of a person. To say that a person deserves to be paid slave wages for their production while investors and middle-management live their lives comfortably, yet the prisoners making the products live in squalor and danger is unethical. People’s lives are at risk while they are incarcerated for crimes, and the sentences they serve should not end up killing them. Grant was in prison for forging pain medication prescriptions, and the argument for the prison system suggests that she would not have died if she had not gone to prison.

However, the individual is created out of a multitude of environmental factors that predispose a monetary need, ease of revenue creation, and a relative morality that isn’t too different from our legally allowed immoral experience. The Sackler family sold opioids on a massive scale that has harmed millions of people, but Grant is given fewer rights because of her status as a prisoner. Kynesha Grant dies in police custody, and the Sackler family is fined for their role in the opioid crisis, with their names still on buildings. To say there is any similarity in the cases, to say that Grant got what was coming to her, is to establish a false moral equivalence.