New mass incarceration policies in both the Philippines and the United States threaten to erode years of progress, writes Sally Tyler.
The jeers of “Lock her up,” that dogged Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail because of her lax e-mail security have now morphed into cries of “Lock him up,” aimed at President Trump, as his White House is embroiled in questions surrounding possible election tampering by the Russian government. Such facile solutions may neatly fit on a placard, but when rally cries substitute for thoughtful policy prescriptions, it’s time to drill down on the practice of mass incarceration and what it says about societies that embrace it.
I had time to reflect on the issue as I rang in the New Year in a Filipino prison. I was taking a break on the island of Palawan, and decided to visit the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, a 26,000 hectare jail complex set in rural environs just 14 kilometres outside Puerto Princesa.
Known by the PR-friendly moniker Prison Without Walls, Iwahig has striven to cultivate an image as a working farm where approximately 3,000 lightly-supervised convicts toil in the fresh air in the cause of rehabilitation. The reality is not so sunny. There is apparently little security concern at the prison, as only a handful of armed guards were visible throughout the compound. But there is also little hope at Iwahig.
A prisoner named Ver gave me a tour of parts of the compound open to the public (the maximum security unit is off limits). He told me that he received a life sentence, of which he must serve 40 years, for selling marijuana at the age of 21. He has now served 32 years. Ver hails from Banaue, 330 kilometres north of Manila. At the time of his conviction, he had a wife and two babies, whom he has not seen since his imprisonment. He was imprisoned in Manila for a few years before being transferred to Iwahig, and says that the cost of traveling made family visits prohibitive. He says he does not think much about what he will do when he is released, as that is still eight years away and he will be an old man by then.
Historically, Iwahig has served as an overflow for Manila’s notoriously overcrowded prisons, and those ranks are expanding precipitously. Though most international scrutiny of Duterte’s so-called war on drugs has centered on extrajudicial killings, less emphasis has been given to the ever-widening swath of humanity he has had thrown into prison. Now, lawmakers happy to do his bidding are pushing legislation to lower the age of criminal liability to nine years old, where it had been until 2006, when the age limit was raised to 15.
Local advocates admit that Filipino drug lords sometimes use children as runners, but they counter that these children should be viewed as victims of the nation’s shabu (meth) epidemic, rather than perpetrators. International human rights groups concur, and last July UNICEF released a statement that the policy change is against the best interests of children. Still, the Duterte faction seems undeterred.
Scientific evidence regarding the pediatric brain has shown that children are not capable of understanding the consequences of their actions at a young age. Such evidence has apparently not reached Alvarez and Castro, co-authors of the Filipino legislation, as they posit in the bill’s explanatory note that children of nine are “fully informed” about ramifications of their actions because of the proliferation of the Internet. In the US, the majority of states have raised the age of criminal prosecution as an adult to 18, and at least five more states are expected to do so this year.
These laudable efforts at the state government level in the US to veer from the trend of mass incarceration threaten to be subsumed by the major reversal in criminal justice policy being pursued by the nascent Trump Administration. Through concerted approaches, including new sentencing guidelines without mandatory minimums and clemency toward individuals sentenced under previous guidelines, the Obama Administration had successfully reduced the federal prison population from 220,000 inmates in 2013 to 195,000 inmates in 2016. Only days into a new Department of Justice, the dismantling of this progress has begun.
Last week, US Attorney General Sessions announced the reversal of Obama’s 2016 executive order aimed at reducing, and ultimately ending, federal use of private prisons. The CEO’s of both GEO and the Core Civic, the nation’s largest private prison companies, must have begun to whistle “Happy Days Are Here Again,” as stock in both firms soared immediately upon the announcement.
If there is any doubt that reliance on private prisons is linked to policies promoting mass incarceration, consider this statement from the Corrections Corporation of America (Core Civic’s previous name) 2010 annual report: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices, or through the decriminalisation of certain activities.” And now, the Trump Administration has thrown the nation once again into the vicious cycle of the prison industrial complex.
The effect of this cycle on offenders has been demonstrated to be long-term, as lack of economic and educational opportunity coupled with discriminatory sentencing guidelines has created a veritable prison pipeline for many young people, particularly African Americans, in the US, leaving them just as hopeless as Ver in Iwahig.
But the impact of this cycle is also felt across society. For one thing, mass incarceration of larger numbers of people for longer periods of time means that communities are deprived of the labour of those imprisoned. And it devastates families, forcing children like Ver’s and countless others to grow up without a father.
Certainly, there are important reasons for incarceration of those convicted of crimes: to protect the public, to punish offenders and to provide space for rehabilitation. Depending on the circumstance, any one of these factors could justify imprisonment. But if the policy is to blindly push for mass incarceration without regard to the societal costs of segregating ever-growing numbers of our citizens, then we are all being punished.
Sally Tyler is an attorney and policy analyst, based in Washington, DC. She holds degrees from Emory University, and from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
This article is a collaboration with Policy Forum — Asia and the Pacific’s leading website for policy analysis and debate.