LEWISTON — A national expert on mass prison incarceration told a Bates College audience Saturday that the nation’s prison system is failing and in crisis.

The rate of Americans behind bars has increased 500 percent during the past 30 years and is higher than any other country, including Russia, Brazil, Mexico and Iran, said Dr. Kaia Stern.

Imagine, Stern said, a 16-year-old boy in a New York prison, a scar across his face, convicted of murder in the second degree.

The youth got the scar from cutting himself with a razor. 

The boy had entered a convenience store intending to steal money from a cash register. He made a bump in his sweatshirt “to make it look like he had a gun.”

The boy had no gun, but the store manager did. He fired at the boy. The boy ducked. “Another person was shot and killed.” The youth was sent to prison for 25 years to life.

At prison he was hosed down, stripped of his clothing, sprayed with a chemical that would kill lice. He was forced to shave his face and skull.

“He said he was so scared, his hand trembled as he held the blade,” Stern said. “Before he realized it, he cut deep into his own flesh.”

That’s how he got the scar, Stern said. The boy was then shackled and sent to a maximum security prison in New York.

The example shows how someone enters prison in the name of justice and ends up with wounds deeper than visual scars, Stern said.

The co-founder of the Prison Studies Project at Harvard University, formed to change policies on mass incarceration, Stern knows a lot about prison life.

A child who is shackled is called a juvenile detainee. “A room with feces smeared across the padded walls, where there’s nothing but a grate in the floor for those locked naked inside to relieve themselves, is called a ‘safety zone’ or the ‘quiet place.’”

Electric shock is called a “total learning environment.”

Stern dislikes words that downplay reality.

Instead of saying felons, ex-offenders, welfare mothers or parolees, “let’s focus on humanity. Let’s refer to people as people,” she said. “Euphemisms are part of what obscures the fact we are talking about people with human rights who are being violated in the name of justice.”

There is no more pressing human rights crisis than prisons, she said.

“The penal system is failing,” she said. “It’s failing victims of crime, failing law enforcement officers; it’s failing people incarcerated, failing taxpayers. It is miserably failing us all.”

During most of the 20th century, only one in 1,000 Americans was in prison. “Now one in 31 — more than 7 million people — are in jail, in prison, on probation or parole.” That number does not include children in prison.

In the past 30 years, the country’s crime rate has remained constant, yet the prison population has jumped 500 percent. “It’s unprecedented,” Stern said. “Jails have become new asylums, with six out of 10 people in jail living with mental illness.”

The majority of crimes people are sent to jails and prisons for are nonviolent, drug-related offenses. The fastest-growing segments of the prison population are African-Americans and Latinos. Two-thirds of those incarcerated have an average level of education less than the ninth grade and earn less than $2,000 a year.

Black and brown people from poor communities “face far different consequences” in the court system and more likely to be incarcerated, Stern said. Youths behind bars become victims of violence, exposed to post-traumatic stress, social isolation and more violence.

Mass incarceration is not only a human rights crisis, “but a theological one,” Stern said. “Our prison system is rife with theological hypocrisy.”

Religion preaches grace and mercy. There are references in Scripture about the need to care for those in prison. “Yet our current policies, which are influenced by religious values, suggest that people who commit crimes are beyond mercy,” she said. “To lock them up and throw away the key” denies the opportunity for redemption “so exalted in Christianity.”

Cost-effective reforms that decrease prison population, increase public safety and strengthen families and communities are possible, she said.

It can happen in three ways: by stemming the flow of people going to prison and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences; by statewide initiatives to allow those incarcerated education and vocational programs; and by reducing the length of probation and parole and expanding social services.

“It’s time to ask ourselves: Is punishment so cruel that it no longer has integrity?”

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