What Humans of New York Got Right About Federal Prison -- and What it Left Out

Humans of New York (HONY) just ended its powerful series inside federal prison, leaving some fans with questions. Some felt that HONY creator Brandon Stanton might have cherry-picked the most sympathetic people to feature--low-level drug offenders who grew up in poverty, suffered abuse, and have tried to make amends, yet still face decades-long sentences. How do his profiles stack up against the broader federal prison population? And what can we each do to help fix the system?

HONY features a number of prisoners who were victims long before they became offenders. They grew up in poverty, lost a parent, struggled with meth addiction, or were abused by partners or family members. Brandon is not misrepresenting the population by highlighting prisoners with troubled childhoods-- fifty-four percent of women in federal prison and roughly half of all prisoners were victims of physical or sexual abuse, and these rates are even higher for those addicted to drugs. Twenty-seven percent of federal prisoners have a parent who abused alcohol or other drugs, half have an incarcerated family member, and four in ten prisoners witnessed a homicide as a child. Their difficult backgrounds do not excuse their offenses, but they remind us that the path to prison usually involves more than just bad choices.

Strikingly, most of the prisoners in the series seem to be incarcerated for drug offenses. They started dealing drugs to make ends meet, to raise kids while supporting a sick parent, or to escape poverty in Honduras. Again, Brandon wasn't cherry-picking by selecting so many drug offenders; they make up 50 percent of all federal prisoners. In state prisons, which hold most of our nation's prisoners, the percentage of drug offenders is closer to a fifth.

Why is federal prison full of drug offenders? The federal system is supposed to handle the offenders that the states cannot: either because they broke federal laws (e.g. U.S. mail fraud), or because they are too important or difficult for state law enforcement to catch (e.g. crime bosses, terrorists, state politicians). But most of the prisoners interviewed by Brandon seem like low-level, non-violent dealers or drug mules. Again, this is an accurate representation of the real federal prison population. For every crack cocaine ring leader, organizer, manufacturer or high-level supplier, for example, federal prosecutors convict about six low-level dealers, mules and users. Nine in tenare incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

Why is the federal government targeting low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, who are already easy prey for the states? Federal prosecutors choose which cases to take, and nobody is pushing them to embark on year-long investigations to take down kingpins and their money-laundering bankers. Instead, federal prosecutors are rewarded for winning large numbers of cases. The easiest way to win cases is to pursue small-time drug dealers, who still face heavy penalties but cannot afford private attorneys. As a result, federal prosecutors fill federal prisons with low-level offenders. These prosecutors should not be wasting taxpayer dollars and filling prisons to pad their resumes with easy convictions.

How long do these low-level drug offenders spend in federal prison? The HONY interviewees report massive prison terms: twenty-five years for transporting cocaine, thirty-seven for selling heroin, five life sentences for dealing crack cocaine, and life without the possibility of parole for the girlfriend of a cocaine trafficker. These long drug sentences are real. Instead of allowing judges to decide fair sentences--which is their job--Congress passed laws that dictate sentences based on the quantity of drugs in the case. Congress intended to target kingpins but set the drug quantities so low that low-level offenders face extreme sentences, like ten years in prison for two ounces of methamphetamine. As a result, the mean federal sentence for federal drug offenders is roughly twelve years, longer than the mean sentences for federal weapons offenses or for most violent state felonies, including robbery and sexual assault.

A small minority of commenters on HONY's Facebook page suggest that the prisoners deserve these sentences: "You made your bed; now you have to lie in it." "Bad choices have consequences." "Grow up." But the vast majority of Americans--and HONY commenters--recognize that these sentences are far too long. Federal judges agree. They lambast these sentences as "crazy," "gut-wrenching," and "cruel and unusual." They have written to the President asking him to release the people they were forced to sentence.

Most of Brandon's interviewees are sympathetic figures--they mentor young people, teach creative parenting and leadership classes, and of course are devoted to their kids. In fact, seventy-three percent of federal prisoners complete self-improvement classes, including parenting, education, and job training. Sixty-nine percent attend treatment programs for alcohol or other drug abuse. These positive efforts--even from those serving life in prison--remind us that we are all more than our worst mistake. They also suggest that people can be rehabilitated, which is crucial, since prisons release 650,000 people every year, and 97 percent of all prisoners are coming home. Yet we allow landlords, employers and educational institutions to reject "returning citizens" (as they prefer to be called) due to their criminal record. When we make it difficult for them to reintegrate into society, it hurts all of us--more unemployed people means more homelessness, more crime, and fewer consumers contributing to the economy.

We need more people like Brandon bringing these stories into the public eye, reminding us that we are all better than our worst mistake.

HONY Has Moved On, But You Don't Have To

Luckily, while few capture individuals' stories as succinctly and powerfully as Brandon does, he isn't the only one transmitting powerful true stories from the humans inside America's prisons:
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