When we think of “political prisoner,” we usually have in mind someone imprisoned either for their political beliefs or their anti-government activity. In the United States today, very few people are recognized as being political prisoners. In reality, there are tens of thousands who should be recognized as such; not because of their political beliefs or actions, but because their continued incarceration is due to being exploited for political gain by politicians, prosecutors, and judges. They may not start out as political prisoners, but they become political prisoners when they continue to be incarcerated beyond any justification and are refused release simply due to political calculations.
Abbie Smith notes that “[i]mprisonment is wrongful if the person is serving a sentence disproportionate to the circumstances of the crime or who the person is or has become.” Virtually everyone currently in U.S. prisons for serious or violent crimes will be wrongfully imprisoned for a portion of their incarceration due to the fact that their sentence has been increased, not out of any true penological purpose, but rather to benefit the political careers of people running for or holding office. We need to recognize that politics play an enormous role in sentencing people to excessive prison terms; that at a certain point most people no longer need to be incarcerated; and that their continued incarceration is purely political.
Tough-On-Crime rhetoric and false claims about the deterrent power of harsher sentences have been used by politicians for over four decades to get elected. Those same politicians have voted to: abolish parole in many states and at the federal level; increase sentencing ranges; and enact Truth-In-Sentencing laws, firearm enhancements, “Three-Strikes” laws, Life-Without-Parole, accountability and felony-murder laws, and more.
Punitive deterrence however does not work because people committing crimes do not know what sentencing laws stipulate. In addition, they almost universally believe they won’t get caught and thus won’t have to face any consequences. Finally, they are not rational actors. Instead they are often drunk, under the influence of drugs, are mentally ill, or have immature brains which hinders rational thinking. They don’t sit down and weigh the costs and benefits of committing a crime.
Nor is it just legislators. Prosecutors eyeing future political office charge defendants excessively to increase their conviction rates and increase the amount of time people will plea to. Judges over-sentence people to prove they are “tough”, and do so under the guise that such sentences will deter others. In reality they are doing so to increase their chances for reelection. Presidents and governors routinely deny people clemency or parole, not out of any deficiency of the applicant, but rather out of political calculations (i.e. because there is a possibility - no matter how small - that it could negatively impact their own political careers). As former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee noted, a governor’s unwillingness to exercise clemency out of such political calculations amounts to “playing politics with people’s lives.”
If you have been in prison for over 12 years without a fair, unbiased review of whether you still need to be incarcerated for public safety reasons, you are a political prisoner. Why 12 years? Because, historically, no one had to wait longer than that for a review (unfortunately too many of those reviews were indeed biased). For instance, prior to 1978 in Illinois, even a murder sentence carried parole consideration after 11 years and 3 months with good time. The federal government, prior to abolishing parole, likewise used to provide parole consideration within a dozen years, and a “life” sentence at one time equated to 15 years.
Moreover, any incarcerated person who is innocent of the charges (and there are many) is also likely a political prisoner due to the fact that our criminal legal system is so highly politicized that no judge wants to admit they made a mistake and no prosecutor wants to admit that they hid exculpatory evidence or that their witness was lying. Additionally, the various procedural roadblocks to overturning a wrongful conviction - like the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act - were put in place by politicians trying to prove their “tough-on-crime” credentials for the next election.
The definitions of “political prisoner” employed by Amnesty International and the Human Rights Center could encompass all of the above examples with a little clarification. It is time we started identifying and counting all political prisoners. Only then can we effectively fight for their release.