In American prisons, status and wealth unfairly tip scales of justice

Photo credit: Kali Ryder

If your guilty pleasure is reality television, you have probably heard of the Chrisley family, the wealthy Southern family featured in USA Network show “Chrisley Knows Best.” The show follows real-estate tycoon Todd, his wife Julie, their children and grandchildren, and Todd’s mother as they lead an opulent lifestyle in Georgia.

The show aired in 2014 and continued for nine seasons until December of 2022 when Todd and Julie Chrisley were convicted of federal tax evasion and fraud charges. Todd Chrisley was sentenced to 12 years and Julie Chrisley to seven, which they will serve in separate minimum security prisons.

Those with wealth often have a positive experience while serving time compared to those from a low-income background. The Chrisley’s eldest daughter, Savannah, reported on her podcast “Unlocked” that though it may sound “crazy,” her mother is “doing really well.” She is making friends and winning countless rounds of Spades, a card game. Meanwhile, her father is enjoying working in the prison chapel and has access to a phone and his email.

In today’s prison systems, the U.S. dollar has the power to determine the humanity, or lack thereof, an individual will receive in prison. If the justice system wants to preserve its integrity, money should not play a significant factor in how an individual is treated while serving their sentence.

White collar crimes such as tax fraud are of a nonviolent nature, so they do not warrant a punishment as severe as that given to those who commit violent crimes. The problem is that a number of other nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession, are committed by less wealthy individuals who do not receive a lightened prison sentence. The U.S. Department of Justice found that “more than a third (35%) of drug offenders in federal prison at sentencing, had either no or minimal criminal history.”

These individuals are not necessarily high-risk criminals who need to be placed in maximum security facilities. Because these individuals often lack financial resources, they likely will not have the option to serve their sentences in a nicer facility. They are more likely to experience abuse, and they will have to worry about a myriad of problems upon their release.

Incarcerated individuals who are wealthy see minimal restrictions like the Chrisleys, and the prospect of being financially stable after their release is of no concern. For those who will have to start a new life both socially and financially after serving their sentence, prison involves working for a wage. Out of nearly 800,000 incarcerated workers, 70% were not able to afford basic necessities with prison wages, and 64% reported feeling unsafe on the job. Additionally, minimum wage for incarcerated people ranges from $0 to $0.35. The workers rights protected by the Thirteenth Amendment do not extend to incarcerated workers. It is modern day slavery in disguise.

The living conditions in prisons are another facet of the problem that depicts inequality. Roughly 41 states operate at 75% or more of their population capacity. The overcrowding of prisons contributes to spread of disease, which was exacerbated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, the “increasingly crowded living spaces, poor lighting, inadequate bedding, and intense environmental stressors are just some of the risk factors associated with decreased sleep quality.” The insomnia rate among incarcerated individuals is approximately 81% in the United States.

Lack of sleep, among other factors, can contribute to the development of several mental illnesses, which one-third of American prisoners suffer from. Abuses committed by prison staffers can further contribute to the deterioration of mental health, such as by instituting solitary confinement policies and other public humiliation tactics. The lack of a clear chain of authority in prisons leads to power hungry individuals inflicting new methods of punishment on incarcerated individuals without any repercussions.

To contrast, Lori Laughlin spent two months in prison for paying $500,000 to secure her daughters’ admission to the University of Southern California. She was in a facility with roughly 185 other women and had access to calligraphy classes and ukulele lessons. She was also granted 300 minutes on the phone per month and could spend up to $360 per month for brand name toiletries. Aside from being deprived of face-to-face contact with family members, the facility she is serving her sentence in likely will not jeopardize her physical and mental health to the extent that other incarcerated individuals face.

It is not just celebrities that have found ways to serve sentences in nicer facilities. Known as the “pay-to-stay” program, many small jails in California allow convicts to upgrade their quality of living during their sentences and move to facilities that include amenities like flat-screen televisions and new beds. From 2011 to 2015, pay-to-stay jails earned $7 million and accepted money from individuals convicted of minor offenses and those convicted of violent crimes, including robbery and sexual assault.

The fact that wealth can be used to upgrade a prison stay to a hotel-like location is an egregious failure of the criminal justice system in the United States. Money should not speak louder than the actions committed by an individual, nor should government facilities meant to detain convicts be in such an abysmal state that people must pay to protect their physical and mental health. There must be a balance between card games and calligraphy classes versus sleep deprivation and hard labor.

There are an abundance of factors that create inequality in the American prison system, and as history has proven, the wheels of justice turn slowly. Affluent incarcerated individuals are treated with the respect and decency that human beings deserve and can pay for amenities, while those on the other end of the spectrum are abused by the system. It is unrealistic to alter all the factors and fully equalize the system, but there must be an effort made to try to rid prisons of the obvious inequalities. Something as profound as the balance of justice should not be so easily tipped by dollar bills.

Sabrina Wilson is a freshman from Winfield, Kan., majoring in Broadcast Journalism.