Kirit Minhas ’20
Criminal justice is a pervasive topic that exists not only in today’s political climate, but has become a large movement in popular culture. The controversy surrounding mass incarceration has become a confusing mix of myths, fake news, and various forms of injustice and bias.
As of March 2019, the American prison system holds 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, 80 Indian Country jails, and various other prison-related institutions. As an array of numbers, this statistic does not move the hearts of many, but the fact that the United States criminal justice system puts more people in prison per capita than any other nation in the world (at a rate of 698 per 100,000 residents) is quite astounding. As a result, many celebrities have decided that this issue is so pressing that they must use their platforms to advocate for criminal injustice and prison reforms.
Kim Kardashian has done the most conspicuous work in this realm, as she has been seen in the news on various occasions working with President Trump and the White House to release wrongfully convicted prisoners and advocate for clemency. Along with lawyers Brittany Barnett and MiAngel Cody, Kim has freed 17 people who were serving extended sentences for low-level offenses, many being the result of first-time drug offenses during the “War on Drugs” popularized by former President Richard Nixon. In an opinion article for NBC News, George Johnson warns of putting too much faith into Kardashian’s activism, and celebrity activism in general; he writes that, oftentimes, “activism of this kind too often focuses on a symptom, allowing the system to stay in place while media portrays isolated stories as ‘proof’ of change.”
The fact that Kardashian is promoting a TV documentary on her work fighting the injustice of the prison system sparks suspicion in the hearts of many who find this as a sign of insincerity—is she only doing this for her own personal gain? While she has done plenty of good work, and should be recognized for it, Johnson says that it is essential to recognize that, despite the individual victories achieved by Kardashian,“getting 17 people released from prison… is not ‘prison reform.’” Releasing individuals does not change the system in place; in its current form, the prison and criminal justice systems need complete overhauls in order to truly effect permanent changes to the injustices that have been taking place for hundreds of years against primarily American minorities.
The media’s mislabeling of Kardashian’s work as “prison reform” is an injustice to many, especially the smaller grassroots activist groups, such as the National Bail Out Committee and Appolition, who have been working to try and change the prison reform system for years beforehand and do not receive the limelight with Kim Kardashian. The true results of Kardashian’s reform efforts are yet to be seen, but it is very important to understand that, to this day, we have yet to see true prison reform in the United States, despite what labels the media may bestow upon certain bouts of celebrity activism. As politically engaged citizens, it is our duty to ensure that we are not swept up in the waves of misleading hope and ignorance cooked up by the media. Acknowledge the progress being made by those in the limelight and those outside of it, and be careful not to extend too much faith into the hands of those reliant upon the media’s attention.
Johnson, George. “Kim Kardashian’s ‘Prison Reform’ Efforts Reveal the Potential Problems with Celebrity Activism.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 12 May 2019, http://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/kim-kardashian-s-prison-reform-efforts-reveal-potential-problems-celebrity-ncna1004571.
Sawyer, Wendy, and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019 | Prison Policy Initiative, Prison Policy Initiative, 19 Mar. 2019, http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html.
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