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Let me begin by saying I am not going where you think I am going with this article. I am not going to talk about right wing family values and how we are all sinners going to hell. I am going talk about the real issue that is destroying our families in this country.

The issues I see as the reasons for the family system being destroyed include mass incarceration, an unfair health care system, gun violence, a 50 percent divorce rate, the oppression of sexual and racial minorities including women, and poverty. I believe these are the societal issues that until we fix them, will continue to fuel the mental health crisis in this country. I am going to create a series of articles describing each of these issues in detail starting today with the issue of mass incarceration.

The Prison System

Mass incarceration is tops on the list, since it literally destroys families, especially racial minority families. Today we have a prison population of 2.2 million from under 500,000 in 1980. Over a period of 34 years the prison population has increased by more than 4 times. The general population only increased by one third over that same time period going from around 200 million to 315-million today.[i] This means that the prison population is growing at a rate higher than the general population. The stats show we are incarcerating people at an oppressive rate especially racial minorities which make up 60% of the total prison population. To put it another way, China, a country with a horrendous human rights record, has a current prison population of 1.5 million and a population of 1.4 billion people[ii]. We are imprisoning people, robbing them of their rights and taking them away from their families, and any possible future.

The United States and individual state correctional programs are broken and are creating the very problem they were meant to stop, crime. The problem begins at the juvenile level. We are sending children to jails for non-violent crimes and minor violent crimes like simple assault, breaking and entering, and theft. Even with more violent crimes a child should have a second chance on life at some point. However, the system does not provide a second chance but rather creates a hardened criminal after a brutal incarceration. There is little or no psychological rehabilitation treatment or education, after which we throw them right back on the street leaving them with no life or occupational options. This leaves a child, who made a mistake at age 14, doomed for the rest of the child’s life even if the record is expunged at age 18.

As an adult, the mass incarceration issues are no better than the juvenile system and may even be worse. We place an adult who may be a father or a mother in prison for non-violent crimes like simple drug possession, dealing drugs, or prostitution. We place them in the same place as rapists, murderers, gangs, and other extremely violent people. The non violent offender gets brutalized in prison by the other prisoners. Even the guards place them into solitary confinement (to me is torture and needs to be banned). When these nonviolent offenders get out they will have received no education, substance abuse treatment, or even basic psychological treatment. However, they do have a criminal record leaving their chances of getting a good job basically nil. So what is a person to do with no education, no job, and a family? Often due to their lack of options they return to a life of crime and end up back in prison, this time for a longer period as a two or three strike convict.

The Role of Mental Health

Our criminal population is made up of people who are clinically ill. About half (1.2 million) of the 2.2 million people incarcerated might have a severe mental illness. That number is 10 times the number of mental health patients in hospitals. In the 1980’s, the Reagan administration defunded the mental health system and put the mentally ill on the street. The privatized mental health system was completely helpless to cover the gap because of a lack of funding. So now, instead of treating the mentally ill, we incarcerate them!! In prison the person with mental illness is abandoned, alone and without treatment. Once released from the correctional facility, the mentally unstable brutalized inmate is sent right back into our communities without any treatment or options. The same is true even if they are sent to halfway houses which are often just as bad as prisons, just no barbed wire.

Lastly, the people who are left behind are the inmates’ family. I see North Korea’s 3 Generation Law where if you are sent to prison the next 3 generations must live their life in jail. We do something similar since we do nothing for the inmates’ family who committed no crime but is punished along with the inmate. For example, let’s look at a 6-year-old child and their Mom and/or Dad goes to prison. Let’s say that person is the primary breadwinner or caretaker. Once the inmate is imprisoned, the family is left to fend for themselves often leading to homelessness and poverty. In fact, children who have a parent who was incarcerated have a 3 in 5 chance of ending up in prison themselves. That creates a disgusting cycle of oppression especially for minorities and the poor.

What can be done? Well, for starters, we need to publicly fund mental health care. It is imperative that we treat the criminally mentally ill because they place a danger to themselves and the community at large. If we do nothing to stop the criminally mentally ill from gaining weapons then let’s stop and treat the mental illness.

Drugs are a factor

We must stop the drug war. Its intention was to do to drugs the same as the war on the mob did to organize crime. However, while the crime families are all in jail the drug war is an abject disaster. The only thing the drug war accomplished is driving up the prison population 700 percent since Nixon declared a war on drugs. Addiction rates remain the same, unaffected by the threat of incarceration since the drug war began, and the crime rate is way up.


Rehabilitation should be the target, not punishment. We talk about rehabilitation, but as far as prisons go we have not moved beyond brutal incarceration as a means of rehabilitation. This is so even though the research suggests that type of rehabilitation does nothing to rehabilitate anyone. We need alternatives for the mild violent offender, like someone convicted of simple assault, that includes education or vocational training, substance abuse treatment, and mental health treatment. In this way when they get out of prison they will have the tools to make a better life.

We pride ourselves as the freest nation on earth, but we take that freedom away at rates that dwarf some of the most repressive governments on earth. We must reform our criminal justice system to a system that will be the envy of the world. We need a system that is researched and proven to reduce the revolving door that is our nation’s current prison system; a system that is based on rehabilitation rather then on brutality and oppression.


[i] The Sentencing Project (2014). Incarceration. The Sentencing Project


[ii] BBC News (2014). World Prison Population. BBC News.

David Fishman

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