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Dehumanized Behind Bars

With more cases of injustice giving rise to the several faults ingrained into the U.S Justice system, public discourse has been centered around the many factors involved in mass incarceration that has criminalized marginalized groups. Although we’ve seen much discussion surrounding the unfair justice system which throws individuals behind bars unfairly– less talk has erupted regarding the actual injustices that occur within the bars of this nation's prisons.


What is going on?


Hidden behind the scenes of every news article surrounding mass incarceration are the stories on what incarcerated individuals actually experience when behind bars. Constant abuse of incarcerated individuals occurs as unbalanced power dynamics occur between those imprisoned and the ones who ‘watch’ over them. Several cases of inmates being harassed and beaten goes unrecognized as the media and prisons themselves cover up the brutal reality of events through the means of dehumanizing all incarcerated individuals. As society, the issue of representing the incarcerated population comes into play as entertainment media uses the idea of the ‘criminal’ to create deliberately harsh ‘monsters’ to be demonized. With this demonizing of the incarcerated, we see media outlets as well finding ways to create more “eye-catching” stories at the expense of the lives of imprisoned individuals.


The history of the U.S demonizing the voices of those incarcerated doesn’t appear only in media, but has historical instances legally where the stories of those incarcerated are often unacknowledged or contorted. An example of this was presented in the 1997 congress law passed the “Prison Litigation Reform Act ''. This act also known by its acronym PLRA requires incarcerated individuals to show a physical injury in order to bring up judgment and challenge prison conditions. This act enabled the abuse of prisoners due to the judgment and question of inhumane actions done to them were seen as “rhetoric.”‘rhetoric’. This act consequently allowed inhumane occurrences such as prisoners being forced to strip and stand naked for hours, having their health privacy comprimised despite patient confidentiality protocal, and constant sexual harrasment from strip searches going unpunished due to the fact that said occurrences were not things that created “physical injury.” In any other context than a prison, these actions occurring unpunished would be ostracized in the public eye.


Why is this happening?


With the stories of marginalized groups often being underrepresented, it's not uncommon for them to also be altered to fit the beliefs and ideals of the media publishing them. For centuries, those who have been imprisoned have been demonized no matter the circumstance or crime. Society often views every imprisoned individual as a violent and dangerous person. This assumption is derived from both the influence of media, and the lack of education surrounding the circumstantial occurrences which can play a part in the actual imprisonment of an individual. The biggest example of this is the vocabulary used in articles written about those who are incarcerated, especially when it comes to the way victims are treated. When prisoners die within prison walls, the articles written about their deaths often include their convictions. Instead of emphasizing any foul play involved in the way this individual died, their whole story and death is stripped to their prison sentence, ignoring the potential for circumstantial stories– whether it be upright ruling, the conditions which lead to the crime, and more. Media often lacks the acknowledgment of potential false convictions/unfair rulings and uses this unawareness to make “eye catching” headlines dehumanizing prisoners which are apparent in the U.S justice system. With the constant use of labels that crucify each individual no matter the article– those who view these articles lose a sense of empathy for the individuals they are reading about. A quote from Jelani Cobb, a New York Times staff writer and Director of the IRA A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia Journalism School, stated that, “As long as we’re talking about people only in terms of what they’ve done wrong, it’s easy to camouflage the fact that we’re talking about human beings.” This inevitably leads to a lack of “care,” voices of those suffering being muffled by a sea of labels forced onto them- often conjured by an imperfect system.


How do we stop it?


With how deep rooted the issue of ignoring abuse within prisons are, the issue itself isn't just something that can be ‘made illegal’ with few simple legislative actions. It demands not only legal acknowledgment and action on how dehumanized inmates are in a corrupt justice system, but a revolutionizing of the ways in which society views criminal justice and incarcerated individuals in general. With the discussion of how imperfect the justice system really is, there needs to be recognition of our own faults as a society to provide empathy where it is warranted, coming to terms with how the media we are exposed to ritualistically nullifies our reactions to cruelty and injustice. The whole point for the prison system was not to inherently punish, but to reform. This is why petty crimes such as delinquency and drug use may subject individuals to jail time– so when did we stop caring for the individuals who were supposed to be behind bars for reform?








Works Cited


Administrator, Vanguard. “Looking Back: Much-Needed Federal Legislation to Reduce Inmate Abuse.” Davis Vanguard, 14 Aug. 2022, https://www.davisvanguard.org/2022/08/looking-back-much-needed-federal-legislation-to-reduce-inmate-abuse/.

McCormick, Andrew. “Shifting How Journalists Talk about People in Prison.” Columbia Journalism Review, 22 Jan. 2019, https://www.cjr.org/analysis/language-prisoners-holiday-meal-incarceration.php.

McCormick, Andrew. “Shifting How Journalists Talk about People in Prison.” Columbia Journalism Review, 22 Jan. 2019, https://www.cjr.org/analysis/language-prisoners-holiday-meal-incarceration.php.



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