All Over the World Poverty Is Being Treated as a Crime
And it has to stop
Imagine being arrested for a crime you have no knowledge of, then waiting nine years in a prison cell to receive justice—until eventually, desperate to return to your home, friends and family, you give up and plead guilty.
This is the story of Victor: one of the heart-wrenching injustices on display in a new short film, “Nightmare,” produced by the Incarceration Nations Network and created by Alex Pope. The film sheds light on a global crisis that disproportionately affects the world’s poorest. Right now, 3.2 million potentially innocent people currently sit in jails around the world waiting—sometimes for decades—in deplorable, commonly unlivable conditions to face a justice system regarding crimes they may have not committed.
Prison systems treat pretrial detainees as temporary and incidental, and therefore devote drastically insufficient resources to them. According to the World Health Organization, suicide rates among pretrial detainees are three times higher than those of convicted prisoners, which are already significantly more frequent than those outside of prison.
In some countries the rates of pretrial detention are upwards of 70% of the total prison population.
Such perturbingly elevated numbers across the globe are due to three major factors: lack of access to legal services, archaic, colonial-era legal systems clogged with delays, and a detainee’s inability to pay bail. These factors have one recurring theme: they are insurmountable barriers for low income people, who cannot afford private lawyers to circumvent the system or even low-level bail amounts. Cash bail is a system that essentially allows people to buy freedom; instead of assessing likelihood to return to court, such a system simply puts a price tag on justice.
Put another way, this is the criminalization of poverty. Overlooked and neglected as a population, people languishing in pre-trial detention overwhelmingly come from the poorest strata of society.
The most recent audit of the prison population in Nigeria concluded that about 85% of pretrial detainees were too poor to pay for a lawyer. In India, one study estimated that 80% of the prison population has only a primary school education or is illiterate. The latest comprehensive study in the United States revealed that 47% of individuals in local jails had not completed high school. The statistics grow more dire after people are imprisoned, due to the inability to earn while detained—which further drives unemployment and poverty.
Yet there is hope.
Ramel—who features in the film—was charged with resistance to arrest in New York and was sent to the notoriously violent Rikers Island: a place so dangerous that New York City’s mayor has vowed to shut it down. But he was fortunate to have the Bronx Freedom Fund pay his $500 bail. If the Bronx Freedom Fund had not bailed him out, he would have remained in Rikers for two years—the length of time the case went on—and would likely have pleaded guilty simply to get out of such a torturous place.
In yet more welcome news, the Freedom Fund is set to announce it is developing into a nationwide effort, raising a fund “designed to post bail for more than 150,000 indigent defendants being jailed across the country,” according to the NYTimes.
There are many ways beyond provision of bail to tackle this crisis, which organizations like Incarceration Nations Network, the Wits Justice Project and The Bail Project are working tirelessly on. All of these methods are driven by one thing that every Global Citizen can agree on: poverty is not, and never should be, treated as a crime.
As Ramel rightly says in the film, “Justice is supposed to be blind, that’s how I see it.” We must no longer be blind to its blatant discrimination.