The Future of Incarceration in America

The Future of Incarceration: A Letter from the Editors

Criminal justice reform needs to happen, even under President Trump.
December 8, 2016, 6:45pm
Illustration by Dola Sun

America loves jails. And prisons. Also juvenile and immigrant detention centers. Right now, more than 2 million men, women, and kids are sitting behind bars across the country, many of whom have not had a trial or been convicted of a crime. The fact that we host a wildly disproportionate share of the world's incarcerated population—nearly 25 percent—is a stat that's tossed around so much it's easy to tune out. But it is a startling reality nonetheless, and an embarrassment for a country that considers itself a paragon of freedom.


It shouldn't come as a surprise that mass incarceration disproportionately affects marginalized communities and people of color. According to an analysis of the 2010 census by the Prison Policy Initiative, nearly 9 percent of black men in their late 20s were incarcerated. Add to that the fact that by some counts, a majority of jail and state prison inmates suffer from a mental illness, and the wisdom behind spending more than $80 billion per year on this system becomes all the more questionable.

None of these are particularly new problems. But, in recent years, there's been a broader acknowledgement that something at the core of the system is deeply fucked, and the desire to fix it has gone mainstream. Last year, Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit a federal prison, a historic moment documented by VICE and accompanied by a series of articles examining the many problems with the mass incarceration system in America. Obama has also commuted more than 1,000 sentences, more than the past 11 presidents combined. Social movements like Black Lives Matter have helped build nationwide awareness of the prejudices that have infested police departments for generations. And calls to close problematic jails and prisons, such as New York's Rikers Island, have taken on a new urgency under an avalanche of articles and investigative reporting on inhumane conditions, sometimes ending with the wholly preventable deaths of inmates. Just this week, a New York Times probe into the state's prison system revealed systemic racism when it came to solitary confinement and other punishment, quickly prompting Governor Andrew Cuomo to launch an investigation of his own.

Enter Donald Trump. The president-elect ran and won as the law-and-order candidate and frequently seeks the counsel of hardline conservative white men such as his likely attorney general, Jeff Sessions—who was considered too racist for a federal judgeship in 1986. Suffice to say, the threat to the progress made over the last several years is very real. And it's clear that the appetite to overhaul how America thinks about and responds to crime isn't the only sentiment out there. For every podcast or TV show about a possible wrongful conviction, for every gut-wrenching story about the system gone astray, there is also fear. Fear about rising crime, even if the oft-hyped crime surge is dubious at best. Fear about protests that challenge institutions like the police. Anger about a country that doesn't look the way it did ten or 20 or 100 years ago.

It is in this climate that we are publishing The Future of Incarceration, a series of articles and short videos dedicated to exploring a better way forward for the criminal justice system. Inside this package, you'll find pieces exploring the logistical hurdles behind closing a jail, an essay from a former social worker who worked with mentally ill patients at Rikers during some of the jail's darkest times, and a dispatch from an initiative by the criminal justice shop Vera Institute of Justice looking for a more humane future. There are also redemption stories from former inmates who talk about the struggle to find work with a criminal history, thoughts on preventative measures for keeping people out of jail in the first place, and much more.

We're also happy to announce a partnership with the Center for Employment Opportunities that will see VICE hire a number of formerly incarcerated people for apprenticeship positions across our editorial, production, and television departments. It's the first program of its kind by a major media company, and we believe an important step in helping people with criminal records reenter the workforce and, in turn, become equal members of society.