One of the most serious and widespread human nights issues in the US is our prison system, in which more people per capita are incarcerated than any other country in the world where comparable records are kept. As Human Rights Watch reports regarding Human Rights and US prisons, "Practices contrary to human rights principles, such as the death penalty, juvenile life-without-parole sentences, and solitary confinement are common and often marked by racial disparities." These human rights violations directly affect the millions of Americans in prison and indirectly affect millions more who have family and loved ones behind bars. The tertiary effects of the prison-industrial complex are felt throughout American political life as resources are put not into keeping Americans safe from crime but from finding people to lock up and keeping those people behind bars. Moreover, the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans, who are disproportionally people of color, has helped the political fortunes of the Republican Party, a party that relies almost entirely on white people for its votes.
Our prison system has trapped millions of Americans in a web of minimum sentences, draconian drug laws, powerful lobbying groups representing those whose wealth and livelihoods are based upon locking up others, and privatized prisons that need to have keep cells filled to make a profit. These millions of Americans include people doing very long sentences for moderate drug violations, others who have been locked up since a very young age and a growing number of geriatric prisoners.
The prison system is inextricably linked to US drug policy as just under 25 percent of people in prison or jail are there for drug-related crimes. While the proportion of people in jail for marijuana possession is not enormous, hundreds of thousands of people are arrested for marijuana use every year, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. This drug policy has also contributed to an environment in which African Americans are far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than members of any other racial group in the US.
The movement to legalize marijuana has picked up momentum recently, particularly now that several states have legal medical marijuana; and Washington and Colorado partially decriminalized marijuana this year. Full legalization, even in Washington and Colorado, is still reasonably far off, but the question of legalizing marijuana is being discussed now more than any other time in the last few decades. Even the president conceded that marijuana is not "more dangerous than alcohol." It is likely that in the next few years the movement to legalize marijuana will get stronger. While this would be a good thing on its own, it will be better if it begins a broader effort to change our flawed drug policy, allowing us to address the prison related human rights issues that define our criminal justice system and plague our country.
Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder has drawn attention to another nefarious byproduct of prison system, the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans not because they are in prison but because they were once in prison. These people have served their terms, but are still not allowed to vote. This is a violation of democratic rights at the individual level, but because of racial disparities in the prisons, it is one that is also a significant civil rights issue that has bearing on political and electoral outcomes.
The debate about legalizing marijuana is beginning in earnest. It is a debate about individual rights, criminal justice, medicine and economics. It is also a debate where a lot of money is at stake. There are people who stand to lose a lot if the prisons are not full and if new ones are not being built. Those who have profited from the prison-industrial complex will fight hard to ensure that marijuana remains illegal because they know that legalizing it is the first step toward a drug policy that is more rational and humane, although less profitable for them.
Keeping marijuana illegal and our jails full may make some wealthier, but it also exacerbates a serious human rights problem and weakens the ability of the US to present itself to the rest of the world as being on the side of human rights. This is already a problem for the US, continuing to keep so many people behind bars will only make it worse.