This article appears in VICE Magazine's October Prison Issue
If one job of journalists is to shine a light into the darkest corners of society, there is no place more in need of their illumination than America's prisons. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated citizens in the US has quadrupled. The incarceration rate is more than ten times higher than that of Mexico, and more than five times higher than in Western Europe. In total, the US is home to nearly a quarter of the world's prisoners, despite accounting for just 5 percent of the overall global population. Black men, meanwhile, make up 38 percent of the prison population but only 13 percent of the total US population. Some analysts have taken to calling these persons "missing" from society. Often, their voices are missing from mainstream media narratives as much as they are from the communities they've left behind.
Reformers have begun to reevaluate the policies that have led to mass incarceration. This year Obama became the first sitting president to visit a prison, and in July he commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders. The suicide of Kalief Browder, a teenager from the Bronx who was held at Rikers Island in New York City for three years without being charged with a crime, led federal prosecutors to implement long-awaited reforms there. A consensus has begun to emerge among voices as diverse as the Koch Brothers and the American Civil Liberties Union that locking up one of every 99 Americans has been a moral and economic disaster—and probably hasn't made us safer.
VICE's Prison Issue hopes to advance this conversation by highlighting the
2.2 million people who are currently locked up in America. The issue features VICE CEO Shane Smith in conversation with President Obama and an investigation by Molly Crabapple into the abuse of a group of whistle-blowers inside a Pennsylvania prison. Andrew Brininstool digs up the forgotten story of a 1980 New Mexico prison riot. We've partnered with the Nation Institute's Investigative Fund to report on the case of a Mississippi death-row inmate who may be innocent, and we've joined the Marshall Project on a trip to Germany to see what US reformers might learn from the European model of incarceration. The issue also includes fiction by Curtis Dawkins, who is currently serving a life sentence in a Michigan penitentiary; a photo series examining the surveillance of juvenile offenders; and a collaborative project pairing inmates in the US with renowned photographers across the world.
A democratic society requires transparency in order to arrive at democratic solutions to its problems, and it's in that spirit that we present to you VICE's Prison Issue.