Tara Simmons is running for political office. More precisely: for the post of state representative for the district of Kidsap in the US state of Washington. And she has a criminal record. In the election campaign, this is the lawyer’s strongest weapon. She could become the first criminal member of the United States. Her opponents have called her a “drug-addicted ex-con”.
“I’m not proud of it,” she says, “but I understand how people end up in prison.“Other candidates for political office are also increasingly open about the fact that they were in prison and are gaining approval. They know the US justice system from their own experience and want to change it.
One in three Americans has already come into conflict with the law
Because there is something wrong. “Mass Incarceration” is not a new Problem in the United States. There are currently 2.1 million prisoners there. This is both absolute and in terms of population more than in any other country in the world. One in three Americans has already come into conflict with the law.
Simmons is a white woman and thus an atypical ex-inmate. About 40 percent of the Detainees are male and black. With a population share of 13 percent African Americans in the USA, that’s a lot. Also Latinos are disproportionately often locked up, many again and again. Almost half of all prisoners (46 percent) are imprisoned for drug offences. A consequence of the” war against Drugs " and the opioid epidemic. Simmons also led an addiction to crime.
“That could have been my way,” the director Roger Ross Williams ponders after the death of his childhood friend Thommy. Growing up in Easton, Pennsylvania, both had dealt as teenagers and committed minor burglaries “to set us apart from the white Kids,” Williams says. He later moved to New York and became a director. Thommy stayed and ended up in prison, again and again, like many blacks around him. Finally, he took his own life.
“Desperate for a mechanism that hardly gives Blacks a Chance,” Williams thought. “What makes this prison system so inescapable? And why is it so hard to change?“he wondered. He met with prison Outfitters, security officials, activists, politicians and, of course, inmates. In a documentary for “ZDF”, he portrayed a System from which too many people benefit. It is not primarily racist, but especially punishes the poor harshly.
“Bail Bond Agents” and " Plea Bargains”
This starts with the arrest. Anyone who is arrested immediately ends up in pre-trial detention. However, a judge can set a bail, with which an inmate remains at large until the court date. This is usually so high that an inmate and his family can only find a part of it. The rest is taken over by a professional bail bond agent for a fee of 10 to 15 percent of the bail bond sum, which he retains in any case. Until then, it is not even certain that the accused has violated any law at all. Even if it is just a mix - up: those who remain in custody are very likely to lose their jobs.
There may not be a real guilty verdict later. Through a trade between the public prosecutor and the defense attorney, they can determine the penalty even without a trial, if the person concerned agrees. The vast majority of later prisoners opt for such a” Plea Bargain”, because court hearings are expensive. The accused thereby renounces his constitutional right to be heard and thus keeps the judiciary running. If every case were tried, the System would collapse.
This is how many innocent people end up in prison
Anyone who has no money for a lawyer will be assigned a public defender. This is often not very motivated or inexperienced. In addition, according to European standards, even small crimes are severely punished in the USA. Repeat offenders can end up in prison for decades after the" Three Strikes Law".
The estimates of how many plead guilty without committing a crime vary according to political preference. Judge Jed Rankoff estimates their share for the “Marshall Project”, which uses journalistic means for prisoners, at 2 to 8 percent. Experts assume that the sentence is often too high because the prosecutor demands the maximum sentence and the accused assumes that he has no Chance in court.
Blacks are more often controlled and punished more severely, the statistics prove. This explains part of the anger that has been driving the black population of the US onto the streets for weeks. A detailed Text about “Plea Bargains” can be read here in “Atlantic”.
A company called “prison”
The American state pays 265 billion dollars a year to judicial officials, security personnel, food and infrastructure to maintain its many prisoners. About 10 percent of US prisons are privatized and generate additional profits, mostly through prison labor.
Forced labor is permitted in the United States under the 13th Amendment if it is part of the sentence. “Chain Gangs” in road construction no longer exist, but the work has remained. Prisoners work in the prison infrastructure or are borrowed like temporary workers to work in agriculture, fire fighting and all kinds of businesses.
Prisoners sew underwear, manufacture military boots or occupy telephone Hotlines. They only get a few cents an hour, in some states nothing at all. Images of black prisoners being monitored by white guards working in fields in the southern states give some justification to the demand to “abolish slavery once again.”
Most Americans do not seem to be quite comfortable with this. When billionaire Michael Bloomberg resorted to prisoners in 2019 to promote himself as a presidential candidate via telemarketing, it led to a real Shitstorm.
In total, however, only a few prisoners work for the private sector. They do most of the work for the state or inside the prison. Prisoners there do almost everything from cooking to plumbing, which is not directly relevant to safety.
The profitable business of captivity
They cannot even buy anything from their wages in the prison shop. Goods and services are much more expensive in prison than outside. In prison phone calls alone, the phone companies earn about $ 500 per inmate a month, Williams has researched. If you get money from relatives, it costs fees. Even when it is handed over as cash.
Those who are incarcerated usually have debts as a result, and so does their family. According to Williams, an average of $ 13,600 is due for court costs and fees alone. A good proportion of all prisoners are in US prisons because they could not pay for something. This does not only affect black people. “I’ve been sitting here for six months because I owe the state 545 dollars,” says a young white woman in an Interview.
Who has money, book luxury prison
Who has money, it can not matter. Wealthy inmates can even relax in prison. Some private prisons offer luxury cells with TV, internet access and private showers for several hundred dollars a day, “Focus” reported. How much this still has to do with punishment is a matter of opinion.
The Parallels to the tourism industry are not to be overlooked. On the other hand, there are always reports of maladministration and poorly trained prison staff in privately run prisons.
In order to make profits, a private US prison expects a certain occupancy, similar to a Hotel. According to “Prison Legal News”, two-thirds of private operators hold contracts that set a minimum occupancy rate. If there are fewer prisoners, there is a risk of a contractual penalty. The state of Arizona had to pay three million dollars to the company MTC due to under-occupancy in 2011. The original claim amounted to ten million.
However, the business with prison is still doing the math: Williams also holds shares in prison companies through his investment funds and finances the business with prison, he notes.
Some states have already pulled the emergency brake
One reason why offices sign contracts with occupancy guarantees: a detention centre creates many jobs. This does not lead to a reduction in the number of detainees and to support Ex-detainees in the process of resocialisation. Some states have already announced the exit. California, for example, will end the privatization of prisons. At the latest from 2028 there should be no more private institutions, longer valid contracts are not renewed since this year.
In order to increase the security of society, the System is only suitable to a limited extent. Three quarters of all former prisoners will relapse within six years. A good part because of violations of probation.
Stolperstein Probation Requirements
The number of people who have been sentenced to probation or released under conditions is many times higher than that of the current detainees. Money also plays an important role for them. They have to pay their debts, find work and housing, even the probation officer costs them money. Due to the punishment, they have sometimes lost the right to practice their profession.
“Not having a job is not a crime”
Simmons, who was initially not allowed to work as a nurse because of her criminal record, found work at Burger King for the minimum wage. Nevertheless, most of her monthly earnings of 900 dollars went to pay her debts. Out of the originally $ 6,100 she owed to the state, an interest rate of 12 percent had turned into $ 7,600 after imprisonment. Court costs, she said at a hearing in Washington state, led to a cycle of poverty.
“Not having a job is not a crime,” says former prosecutor Adam Foss. “Even if you don’t want a job and prefer to hang out on the Sofa, you don’t commit a criminal act.” However, many go to jail every year for such and other violations of the conditions. A missed drug test is enough. The psychological and financial burden for their relatives is great.
Loss of democratic rights for Criminals
Tara Simmons may soon have a chance to change that. But above all, she is lucky. She lives in a US state where she can vote and run as a criminal. Anyone who is in prison in the USA, is released under conditions or is serving a suspended sentence loses the right to vote. Depending on the state for some time or even for life. In Iowa, for example, Simmons would lose her lifetime voting rights.
Six to seven million Americans can hardly exert any political influence because they are under the supervision of the state. However, some states, such as Florida, are already trying to relax these regulations.
Instead of ever harsher penalties, which usually works well during the election campaign, US politicians from both parties have been campaigning for Reform of the system for several years. They probably do this not only for humanitarian reasons. For every Dollar that goes to the prisons, there are ten times as much consequential costs, for example in the social and health system. According to a 2016 study, the prison industry costs the United States six percent of GDP.