When I was growing up in East Flatbush, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, a close friend I'll call MZ provided my inspiration for becoming an actor. He could have had Hollywood on a string.
But MZ suffered from bipolar disorder. Too poor to get the mental health care he needed, he ended up behind bars, and it wrecked him. Between the disorder and what he experienced in prison, he was no longer the friend and brother I knew.
Stories like MZ's are common. America has long been using jails and prisons as a dumping ground for the mentally ill and those addicted to drugs. Many of these people don't belong in prison — they belong in treatment. Yet we've pushed them into cages and denied them their humanity.
America is addicted to mass incarceration. Our habit of locking away human beings is a particularly unseemly kind of addiction for a country that prides itself on freedom. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than China, Russia, or Iran. Right now, America accounts for about 5 percent of the world's total population but is responsible for 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. That amounts to nearly 2.4 million human beings.
And as a study released last month by the Brennan Center for Justice points out, mass incarceration doesn't even reduce crime.
Health problems are health problems, not criminal justice problems.
In America, it is black men more than anyone else who suffer from our dependence on mass incarceration. Currently, black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned in federal and state prisons and local jails than white men. This racial disparity is a result in part of the war on drugs, which has been devastating communities of color for the past four decades. Although blacks and whites use illegal drugs at roughly the same rates — and although African-Americans make up just 13 percent of the US population — African-Americans comprise nearly 40 percent of those put away for drug offenses in state and federal prisons.
Ruining people's lives for small, nonviolent offenses tied to drug use, drug addiction, or mental illness is not the way to go. Health problems are health problems, not criminal justice problems.
There are many men with bright futures who look like me, who have been relegated to our prison systems. Without opportunities to express themselves or get the right support, they've made mistakes. The costs of those mistakes are high, and these men pay with their futures.
That's to say nothing of the huge monetary cost of confinement. The US spent $80 billion in 2010 to lock up people on the local, state, and federal levels. That money could be better spent on education, health care, and getting at-risk people the counseling they need so they don't fall back into addiction and petty crime.
Once people have done hard time, the world closes in on them. It's damn near impossible to get a job. Depending on where you live, you likely can't vote. The possibility of becoming a productive citizen is all but eliminated by a system that denies those who have served their time with a second chance. Instead, they're forever seen as ex-cons.
We have spent 40 years stuffing our prisons, mostly with black and brown men. This isn't who we are, and we have to do better for the sake of all people. MZ deserved better, and there are hundreds of thousands more like him.
Michael K. Williams is an actor and the ACLU ambassador for ending mass incarceration. Follow him on Twitter: @BKBMG