There are over 2 million men and women incarcerated in America’s state, federal and private prison systems. That’s almost a quarter of the world’s inmates. The problem is that many of them don’t belong behind bars. If even 1% of U.S. prisoners were wrongfully convicted, then tens of thousands of individuals are languishing in cells unjustly, their lives irrevocably altered by errors, corruption, incompetence or a mixture of all three. And researchers are convinced the number is much higher than 1%. For a lucky few, however, there’s hope. Across America there are teams of small professional groups who expend superhuman time and effort into freeing the innocent. HUSTLER speaks with the founders of the California Innocence Project, an organization that specializes in fighting to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, and interviews Timothy Atkins, a man whose youth was stolen by a flawed justice system and who spent over 20 years behind bars before being freed.
The simple truth is that the U.S. prison system is a hugely profitable business. The private prison industry in the USA is listed on the stock market, with an estimated worth of over $70 billion. Coincidentally, from 1990 to 2009 there was a 1,600% increase in inmates sent to the private prisons now operating in 33 states, including California. They function much like factories, with prisoners receiving anywhere from 17 to 50 cents an hour for manual labor.
The two biggest American private prison companies are CCA and GEO Group, which constantly lobby Congress for higher bail charges and longer sentences, ensuring that their prisoners stay where they want them. Private institutions now account for approximately 7% of the total state prison population and 19% of the federal prison population.
Simply put, there is no incentive to keep people out of jail in a system like this. Though it’s relatively easy to be wrongfully convicted of a crime in the U.S., it’s almost impossible to have that sentence reversed. Many Americans find themselves in a Kafkaesque nightmare in which their whole world is stripped from them unjustly, and they face spending the rest of their lives in prison.
Timothy Atkins was one such individual.