When Carl Harris was released from prison in 2009, he described himself as “a man coming out of a cave after 20 years.” Convicted of assault at age 24 after injuring two people who had stolen his crack cocaine, Harris had been a drug dealer since he was 18 years old. After six years in prison, he realized he wanted more out of life. He found God, got clean, and focused on his education. Despite his efforts at personal redemption and societal rehabilitation, Harris sat in prison for another 14 years, costing the federal government more than $300,000.

During his 20 years in prison, Harris worked a $1.15-an-hour prison job; his wages failed to cover the cost for his wife, Charlene Hamilton, to visit him in prison, let alone help provide for their two young daughters. As a newly single mother, Hamilton turned to welfare payments and relatives for support; she briefly became homeless a couple of times after being unable to make ends meet. As Hamilton put it: “Basically, I was locked up with him.” None of this is to suggest that Harris should not have gone to prison—even he agrees that he deserved some prison time—but his experience in the criminal-justice system demonstrates that incarceration affects not only prisoners themselves, but also their families, communities, and all American taxpayers.

Harris is merely one of millions of Americans who experience the country’s outsized and inefficient criminal-justice system.

 

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Image credit: Alex Staroseltsev