By Brian Sherrill, staff writer

The United States of America, the land of the free, is not so free after all. Throughout history, our leaders and influential critics of authority look at how a culture and a governance should be judged and evaluated. As the general conversation goes, a society and/or culture’s character, intelligence, and effectiveness as humans, rather than animals, dutifully may be judged by how they treat their poor, elderly, and disabled neighbors.

As right as this may be, I think it misses an important demographic often too quickly ignored and easily written-off as undeserving of our attempts towards understanding or empathy. Those people are our criminals; our often violent, often insidious, and often our most misunderstood and most unfortunately misguided citizens that are only products of their own environments and upbringings.

Easily one can see what kind of communal environments produce criminals. Criminals, especially violent ones, come from backgrounds that are poor and under educated areas that lack opportunities and hope.

I think, while it is important to give the victim of a crime appropriate justice, it is equally important to pity the wrongdoer because in many cases they are the ones most oppressed, most of the time from birth.

First, we should ask ourselves what we as a society want out of our prison system, and I think it is important to consider a situation in which an ex-convict may move into your neighborhood, maybe even become your next door neighbor. Everyone could agree they would be reassured that they can trust that this person would not steal your tv, trust this person over for block parties, trust your children to be able to play outside without constant surveillance. This kind of ideal situation is unfortunately not likely.

Today, trusting an ex-convict is incredibly hard because our prison system does not produce rehabilitated, educated, emotionally stable, nonviolent human beings.

Instead, the prison system we have today, it seems, produces even more violent criminals than are admitted. In many facilities nation-wide these people are treated more like cattle than humans. It is nearly pathetic to expect these individuals to readily be capable of re-joining our society after serving time. In our society, we make it easier for an ex-convict to return to prison rather than join us on the outside socially and economically.

In a way, our own system also violates the constitution and so therefore the prisoners’ rights to “no cruel and unusual punishment.”

Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer, activist, and author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.She calls the prison system crisis “a human rights nightmare.” And I tend to lean in her favor after looking over the facts highlighted in her work.

  • The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners.
  • The total incarcerated population in the U.S. is a staggering 2.4 million — a 500% increase over the past 30 years.
  • One in every 108 adults was in prison or jail in 2012.
  • One in 28 American children has a parent behind bars.
  • At the end of 2007, 1 in 31 adults was behind bars, on probation or on parole.
  • Currently, 65 million Americans have a criminal record.
  • There are more people behind bars today for a drug offense than there were in 1980 for all offenses combined.
  • The U.S. spent $80 billion on incarceration in 2010 alone.
  • About as many people were returned to prison just for parole violations in 2000 as were admitted in 1980 for all reasons combined.
  • Parole violators accounted for more than 35% of all prison admissions in 2000. Of those, only one-third were returned for a new conviction; the rest were returned for a technical violation, such as missing a meeting with the parole officer.
  • A first-time drug offense carries a sentence of 5-10 years. In other developed countries, that sentence would be six months of jail time, if any at all.
  • The vast majority of those arrested with a drug offense are not charged with serious offenses. For example, in 2005, 4 out of 5 drug arrests were for possession, not sales.
  • In the 1990s, marijuana possession accounted for nearly 80% of the spike in arrests.
  • Three out of four young black men in Washington, D.C., can expect to serve time behind bars. This is despite the fact that people of all races use and sell drugs at the same rate.
  • African-Americans comprised 12% of regular drug users, but almost 40% of those arrested for drug offenses.
  • More than 96% of convictions in the federal system result from guilty pleas rather than decisions by juries.
  • Conservative estimates put innocent people who plead guilty between 2% and 5%, which translates to tens of thousands of innocent people behind bars today.
  • Eighty percent of defendants cannot afford a lawyer. Tens of thousands of people go to jail every year without ever talking to a lawyer or going to trial.
  • A public defender will routinely have a caseload of more than 100 clients at a time.

The point of this article is not to find out the cause of these high numbers. Like said earlier, we must ask ourselves what we want out of a citizen returning to us, back into our society, back into our communities and our neighborhoods. Criminals are not any less human than the banker down the street. Sometimes, some would agree that the banker is more of a criminal than some petty thief.

Some would also agree that the drug dealer with a criminal record making it nearly impossible to find a job outside of selling marijuana (a plant that helps seizures, stress, ptsd, anxiety, depression with hardly any negative side-effects scientifically proven), struggling to put food on the table for his/her child to have enough energy for school after breakfast is much less of a criminal in comparison to the juggernaut pharmaceutical CEOs buying more yachts than houses after effectively selling America into an Opioid and Xanax epidemic.

There is no doubt in my mind that mainstream media has played a big part in conceiving this negative image against criminals serving time behind bars. George Orwell once said the propagandist’s job is to make one group of individuals believe that another group of individuals is less human. And I believe they have succeeded in their endeavor to erase these people, with fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, from the nation’s collective sympathies.

Our prisons should not be mental, emotional, and physical torture chambers. They should be rehabilitation centers. Instead of showing these people fear and hatred, we should be teaching them how to learn, teach, and how to be happy.

In order to do this, we may need to – oh I do not know – learn from people that have this philosophy figured out.

Norway’s incarceration rate is just 75 per 100,000 people compared to 707 people for every 100,000 people in the US. In Norway, criminals that do leave prison do not return. They have the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%. The US has the highest: 76.6% of prisoners are rearrested within five years.

Their philosophy revolves around a concept called “restorative justice,” which focuses on repairing the harm within a person that causes crime rather than punishing the criminals.

In Norway there are less sentences and high accommodations to make inmates more comfortable. In America this sounds alarms of outrage and refutes asking about serial killers and rapists. For this, the Norwegian system does not allow the inmate to be released if the inmate is not determined “rehabilitated.”

The director of a Norwegian prison named Halden noted this question to naysayers: “Every inmate in Norwegian prisons are going back to the society. Do you want people who are angry – or people who are rehabilitated?”