Reasonable Doubt Finale: Why You Ought To Care

Reasonable Doubt Finale: Why You Ought To Care August 20, 2018

It’s a fact that most people don’t give prison a second thought. Many, like I did, just assume, somewhere in the deep recesses of their mind, that only bad people go to prison. They imagine prison as a terrifying place, full of monsters and they’re glad the doors are locked.

It isn’t until someone you love and care about gets locked up, that the hidden world of incarceration becomes all you can see. You watch, as your friend or family member goes through the system and you cannot help but wonder, and sometimes be overcome with burning curiosity… well, if he can get locked up, there must be other good people inside, as well.

If there is anything I could relay to the world after writing and talking to my friend in prison for near a decade, it’s that you absolutely need to care, before this happens to someone you love.

Why should you care? The reasons why make up part 8 and the final instalment of a series called Reasonable Doubt. Here are the previous parts:

Here are several reasons why you ought to care about wrongful convictions:

1. You are more likely to go to prison than become a victim of crime. If you are an American, prison is not just a bigger threat for you, it’s a far, far bigger threat for you than ever being raped, mugged, robbed, murdered, or assaulted. In fact, 9% of all males in the USA go to prison.  If you’re Hispanic that increases to 16%. God forbid (no holy) you’re black because a whopping 25% of you go to prison in your lifetime, making the systematic racism in the US absolutely undeniable. 1 in every 20 people, men and women, will do time in the United States of America. Whereas, your chances of being the victim of crime, are 1 in 250.

Ask yourself: Is this reasonable? These statistics make clear that more people are doing time for victimless crimes than they are for crimes in which someone has experienced harm or terror. Is this reasonable?

2. It costs your State and your Country an absolutely horrendous amount of money. If you’ve ever found yourself complaining about the lack of funding for education or healthcare, senior care or mental health, drug rehabilitation, roads, environmental protection, etc, etc, and you want to know where your money is going? Prison. It’s going to prison.

A recent report on state spending by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed an unsettling trend. State spending on corrections has grown twice as fast as spending on K-12 education, at the same time, spending on the prison system has grown 28 times more than spending on higher education.

It costs approximately $22,000 per year for a minimum security inmate, $26,000 for low security, $27,000 for medium security, and $34,000 for max security.

It can and often does cost upward of $25 million per death row inmate from the beginning of his trial until his last breath.

Just imagine what that could do for education in the United States of America.

3. Prison is not just for poor minorities. While being poor or a minority or both puts you at greater risk of going to prison, it’s doesn’t mean white, middle class and rich folk are exempt.

I am a white, middle class, educated Canadian woman. I had about as much reason as anyone to think the American justice system would never, ever find it’s way into my life…. and yet it did. My friend? The one who was actually in prison? White, brilliant, and came from a wealthy family. The ex-con I reached out to when I needed to learn more? White, Jewish, wealthy, worked with the creator of the Dilbert cartoon and was an executive at a major telecom company. Remember Michael Peterson? Convicted of murdering his wife on little more than a hunch? Famous author, white, wealthy.

No one is safe, no one lacks the need to be very concerned about how the American justice system works. Not non-Americans, not white people, not wealthy people, not educated people. Everyone is at risk when the most influential country in the world is incarcerating people for sport.

4. Wrongful convictions lead to more victims of violent crime. As I’ve said many times over in this series, when the wrong man is put away for a crime, it leaves the real perpetrator out there, able to harm more people. Further, by the time it is discovered that the incarcerated individual is innocent, all trails to the real offender may have run cold. It also victimizes the innocent inmate’s family and loved ones, and the families of the victims of the real perpetrator.

5. Prison leads to prison leads to prison. Many studies, including the one I am referencing from The Sentencing Project, indicate that children who grow up with an incarcerated parent are much more likely to end up incarcerated themselves. So, what does that mean for you? It means more crime. The more parents who are locked up for things they did not do, or for non-violent, victimless crimes, the more crime is committed in the long run.

6. The cost of calls. Calls from prison are expensive. If the person you know who is incarcerated happens to be someone you love and adore and want to talk to a lot, you’re going to go broke. A 15 minute call from my friend was never any less than $20 a pop and 15 minutes is nothing. It goes by in a flash. You can’t help but say yes when they ask if you mind them calling back, because you miss them so desperately and you know this is the best part of their day. I had bills upwards of $800 per month. When you do the math, that’s a little more than a 15 minute call a day. Think of the person you most love in this world, and then imagine only being able to speak to them for 15 minutes a day. My friend was a friend, but imagine if it had been my husband? Is 15 minutes a day enough to sustain a marriage? Most people can’t even afford a call a week, let alone one per day. Being as incarceration affects the poor more often, the average person with a loved one inside can’t even afford to accept one collect call from prison. This is nothing short of victimization of the inmate’s families.

7. Prison is big business. With states finding that they are spending more and more on prison, they’ve turned to privatization. Private prisons are for-profit endeavours. To raise profits they have often lowered food rations, signed agreements with states to fill to a certain percentage (between 90-100%) ultimately giving the state a conviction quota, and had deals with immigration so that they house more than 50% of all detained immigrants.

According to Truthout,

The biggest private prison owner in America, The Corrections Corporation of America, has seen its profits increase by more than 500% in the past 20 years.


100% of all military helmets, ID tags, bullet-proof vests and canteens are created in federal prison systems through prison labor. Though prisoners are “generously” compensated cents per hour, it’s clear having this inexpensive, exploited labor force is critical to the military industrial complex.

The bigger private prisons get, the more incarceration there will be. This, despite the fact that since 1993, violent crime has dropped by a mind-blowing 43%.

It’s one thing to read stats and arguments for why you should care, but incarceration is so deeply personal and can’t be whittled down to stats and facts. It’s hard to care about someone inside. I imagine it’s even harder to be in there.

On one particular call from my friend, the normal recording played,

“This is a call from an inmate at an Ohio correctional institution.”

Then I would hear him say his name, and the recording would continue,

“has placed a collect call from BlahBlah Correctional Institution.”

I would then be prompted to accept the call by pressing 1. I’d finally hear his half-hearted, “Hey. Sup?” and we got to chatting. It was either something about working out or how he made his ramen that day, as per usual. About 12 minutes in, I hear shouting in the background. This is a maximum security prison that, at the time, housed Ohio’s death row.

“What was that?” I asked, worried. He didn’t answer and instead began shouting back. It sounded heated. There were deep, booming voices of hardened men. I heard a crash and asked frantically, “Are you okay? M? Hello? Are you alright?”

“You have one minute left.” The recording came on reminding me I only had a minute left on the call.

“M! Are you okay? One minute left!” I demanded a few times, while still listening to shouting and banging. The call disconnected. I was beside myself with worry. Then the phone rang again, again the recording, again I accepted the call, and again I hear, “Hey.” Then he says he’s sorry he let the call disconnect without saying bye. I asked him if he was okay. He said, and I quote,

“Yeah. Dude just wanted to borrow my mayonnaise.”

After giving him sufficient crap for scaring me half to death, we finished our call. I had near forgotten where he was, and things like that would happen frequently to remind me. You go to bed scared, you wake up scared, and sometimes you go stretches of time without hearing from them at all.

My friend went to the hole after a fight in the yard. He was there for 3 months. The prison doesn’t tell anyone where he is. We’re not kept up to date on how he’s doing. My only way of kind of knowing whether he was alive or not was to check his offender page on the corrections database web site which was rarely updated. He just simply went silent. No calls. No letters. No nothing. I cannot express in words how utterly terrifying that is.

I want to reiterate, this was my friend. He meant a lot to me, but I wasn’t married to him or related to him. I’d never lived with him; I didn’t grow up with him. He was a friend who definitely mattered to me, deeply, but just a friend nonetheless. What I experienced was child’s play compared to what wives of inmates experience. Mothers of inmates, brothers of inmates, fathers, girlfriends, sons, daughters. They experience what I can only guess is a living hell. To know that some studies estimate that nearly 10,000 innocent men and women are incarcerated every single year, is to know that you are willingly, and knowingly victimizing hundreds of thousands of innocent people every year, and paying for it with your safety, with your tax dollars and with your own ability to identify as an innocent.

If 20 Americans read this post, odds predict one of you is going to prison. Which one will it be? Will you be guilty of the crime you are convicted of? Will you deserve to go? How will it affect your family?

As atheists who proclaim to be rational thinkers, we voice outrage with ease when a terror attack occurs but the odds of being in an attack are 1 in 3.5 million. The odds of prison are one in 20 and yet we are relatively silent on the topic.

I’d like to change that. I’d love to see some fellow atheists with blogs voice their opinion on this. I’d love to read your take, your experiences and your ideas. Be sure to send me the link to anything you post via email here:

If you like what I do here and want to support my work, you can donate here or become a patron here.

This is part 8 and the final instalment of a series called Reasonable Doubt. Previous parts: 

Further Reading:

Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay

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  • WallofSleep

    Private, for profit prisons are absolutely unAmerican and need to be abolished. Same goes for private collection agencies authorized to collect on traffic tickets, court costs, etc., which are allowed to slap on ridiculous fines and interest rates that practically guarantee their victims will go to prison for lack of payment.

    BTW, can I, um… can I come live with you in Canada? Things are getting freaky weird in my country. 🙁

  • Benjamin Muller

    Many, like I did, just assume, somewhere in the deep recesses of their mind, that only bad people go to prison.

    I think what underscores what a bad assumption this is for me is that there are folks in prison for weed, and there are pedophile priests who will never do time. There are black people who have the police called on them for trying to do normal legal things like use a pool, and there are white pastors molesting kids who get covered for and given how often the stories drop, it is a sadly ongoing and normal occurrence.

    We don’t live in a society that cares for justice and we certainly don’t live in a society that cares about being rational. We live in a society dominated by religious idiots whose priorities are set by those out to make a buck(or feed some other desire), no matter whose lives they ruin in the process.

  • Jim Jones

    New Study Shows How Often Juries Get It Wrong: Northwestern University News

    In a set of 271 cases from four areas, juries gave wrong verdicts in at least one out of eight cases, according to “Estimating the Accuracy of Jury Verdicts,” a paper by a Northwestern University statistician that is being published in the July issue of Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.

    5 Stupid Juries That Prove the Justice System Is Broken |

    Justice Failures and Frauds

  • Jim Jones

    Actually they are very American. I don’t think you’d find them in many other places.

  • WallofSleep

    Heh, point taken. But I’m sure you gathered my intent. It’s a morbid disgrace to our country.

    EDIT: Although I don’t doubt that prisons are run for profit in many other countries, just probably not legally sanctioned and paid by the gov’t as they are in our country. Again, a morbid disgrace.

  • Jim Jones

    It’s a disgrace the way it is done. It’s also a disgrace that almost all US prisons are “torture castles”, not much better than those in poor countries.

    Sweden’s Remarkable Prison System Has Done What the U.S. Won’t Even Consider

  • The destroyer

    This is interesting to me

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  • Widuran

    Yes Prisons should be a punishment, and keeping the public safe and for some rehabilitation. Not a profit making thing.

  • I credit Orange is the New Black for helping me rethink incarceration. Most of the women in that series (many based on real people the author of the memoir it’s based on knew in prison) are guilty and should be doing time. So the question then is what choices led them to be there (something the show is very good at exploring) and what happens to them once they are there. Aside from the show you can find any number of interviews with people who have been incarcerated and every one I have seen was similar. None of them see any value in their experience in prison. There’s no rehabilitative aspect of our prison system, even though we like to talk about prison in those terms. And with private prisons what little value there was (getting a GED or learning a job skill) has pretty much disappeared. When states ran their prison systems there was an incentive to release inmates who would not return because housing and feeding them is expensive. But the private prisons want more inmates not less because every new inmate is more profit. A lot of things should be for profit in our economy, but prisons should not be one of them. I want fewer prisoners, not more (preferably because of less crime). Most inmates are going to spend a few years there and be released. And then what happens to them? We should all care about that.

  • This is off topic, but can we talk about how every bill now comes in an envelope that makes it look like you’re past due and about to be in legal trouble. Medical billing is the worst offender. I have a 100% on time payment record on my credit report, but I’m treated by companies sending me a bill as if I’m six months late and they are about to take me to court. That’s fraud and should be illegal. Just send me a bill and I will pay it. I don’t understand why companies think it’s okay to treat good customers like deadbeats. I just left my doctor over this.

  • I have an acquaintance who has been in prison. He’s not a bad person, but he did do something incredibly (and admittedly) stupid that landed him in jail. I think we need to let go of this good person/bad person binary. Any one of us would commit a crime under the right (wrong) circumstances. Think you wouldn’t? Okay. Imagine your child is dying and your insurance won’t pay for the medicine they need to survive. There’s an opportunity to steal it and a 75% chance you won’t get caught. What do you do? You would steal it. I would. And I would hope a jury would understand but it would be a crime. (I might even be willing to do the time so that the kid lives.) The idea that there’s a hard line between criminals and law-abiding people is an illusion that helps those of us who have never been in legal trouble feel justified in locking people up for minor offenses. The one that aggravates me are people who admit to having used illegal drugs but who are still for locking up people caught possessing those same substances. We don’t like being hypocrites so we maintain the lie that the people who are in jail for that are bad people and we are good people. It’s a big fat lie.

  • dala

    This is why the correct thing for a society to do, from a moral, economic, and social standpoint, is to prevent no-win situation from occurring whenever possible. That means helping people get the necessities they need to survive (including medical care) rather than forcing them to choose between death or incarceration. Educating people, so they are capable of getting a good job. Any time a person feels that they need to commit a crime in order to meet their basic needs, it means that society has failed in a fundamental way.

  • Mr. James Parson

    I have given up on Democrats even making that a campaign issue. I have no reason to expect that they are going to fight for that.

  • Mr. James Parson

    So what would you do for people who have served their time, but are still dangerous?

  • Widuran

    If they are still dangerous then more jail time is needed definitely

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  • WallofSleep

    When recidivists are considered ‘return customers’, the goal of reducing recidivism goes out the window.