By Aubrey Michael Berryman / by Jeff Jones

Right now we are facing a major human rights issue, that for the most part is hidden in plain sight. Prisons are tucked away into the corners of our vast land for a reason, because out of sight means out of mind. In modern America's social economic landscape, prisons equate profits. Prisoners and their families should not be treated as a commodity. The economy built into and around prisons is vast. JPay charges for email and, alongside their other ventures, reports gains by hundreds of millions, the company worth billions. Keefe Commissary Network steadily increases prices, thereby altering the cost of living beyond the earned wage of prisoners. As of November of 2018, prices across the board are slated to increase 10%. But wages for Virginia offenders have been locked at a .45c max since the 1980s. Their family and friends often take up the slack. Many consider this an extra tax on the poor. Judges hold investments in the very jails they send people to.

While the rest of the free world has figured out more productive, cost efficient, and humane ways of dealing with criminals, our capitalist nation has commercialized incarceration. The modern industrial prison complex is real, and traded on every major stock exchange in the world.

We are creatures of habit and comfort. Change risks all of that. We don't want to change because it is frequently difficult. Change means a new plan, plans mean risk. Risk means money, money that we've all worked so hard for. This often translates to ideals taking a back seat to the bottom line. But when does the cost of stagnation become too high? How much money is human life worth?

How can we possibly fight something like that?

We fight it with tenacity, making each of our voices heard with each vote. Our laws need to change so that prisons become nonprofit. Any money that prisons generate should go to victims’ advocacy groups, education, and rehabilitation. Schools should not be a pipeline into prison. Yet the horror of it is very different.

It really all begins and ends with education. Educate the youth before they offend, and you solve two problems. They become productive citizens, paying taxes, buying and building for the next generation. For people that are already in the system, providing an alternative to crime through trade skills and/or higher education. This formula has worked time and time again in every other free loving country, and a few that aren't so free. Why should America, the country that exports freedom, try to stomp it out and halter progress when our motto says different? We need to be the change we want to see, to be; otherwise we are the worst kind of hypocrite.

Crime and punishment have been around since civilization began. Break the law, and you go to prison. The practice is old, and its method of implementation hasn't evolved nearly enough in this country. In our land of opportunity, of hope and second chances we are very hesitant to give anyone the hope of a second chance. I'm not saying we should be lenient on crime. However it is obvious that the current overpopulation of prisons demands review. The convention needs to evolve, to change if there is going to be any hope of making a difference. One thing that can be agreed on both sides is that the status quo isn't working. What we need is balance, or checks and balances, by no means any different than the rest of our government.

Law and policy is written by our elected officials. The very structure of our government is based upon various checks and balances. Yet there is no balance in American corrections, positions appointed by our government. Prison sentences, parole, and policy speak for themselves. Visitors in Virginia have had their civil rights challenged, or out right ignored with recent policies. Just ask yourself if they are willing to dictate to a woman what kind of feminine hygiene product she may use while at visitation, and reserve the "right" to strip search her to enforce their rule, what rights are ignored for those incarcerated?

If we mean to succeed with rehabilitation, to give offenders another chance, then the change needs to be real. Americans need to speak, at the ballot box. One by one we should decide together, what needs to change. To deny the least of America is to deny the ideals that make this country great. Silencing a voice, a vote, is undemocratic and spits in the face of our forefathers.

What I propose would cost little to nothing of taxpayer money. It would provide education and civic responsibility to those that need to be productive, tax paying, lawful members of society. Participating incarcerated students could prove through grading just how serious they are about contributing to a societal whole. Prisoners could earn back their right to vote upon graduation of their U.S. civic program. In our country the act of prisoners casting votes is not without precedent. Our incarcerated are still Americans. We are thinking and feeling people who should have the right to be heard. Those who have served time or are serving time are only growing in number. They are us. We are Americans, and have a right to be heard.