In the wake of the United States Civil War (1861-1865) fought for the emancipation of enslaved Africans and the elimination of chattel slavery, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution were passed, with the latter—the 15th Amendment, passed in 1870—guaranteeing African American men the right to vote by declaring that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Despite this Amendment, enacted on the graves of over a half million soldiers, this guarantee of voting rights for African Americans had to be reemphasized, once again, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, which sought to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution.
The United States Department of Justice is a federal executive department, responsible for the enforcement of the law and the administration of justice. As such, its legal basis lies in Article II of the United States Constitution. To aid in these duties to enforce the law and administer justice, the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Justice, was established in 1930 — as the agencies web page states — to “provide more progressive and humane care for federal inmates, to professionalize the prison service, and to ensure consistent and centralized administration of federal prisons” (“About Us”, 2016).
With 20 US Penitentiaries, 65 Federal Correctional Institutions, 13 Private Correctional Institutions, seven Federal Prison Camps, 19 Administrative Facilities, and 15 Federal Correctional Complexes, and multiple state and local prisons, jails, and detention facilities, the United States currently detains over two million prisoners each and every day, the world’s largest prison population on earth. China, with 1.3 billion total population compared to the US population of 321 million, is second with 1,548,498 prisoners (United States vs. China, 2016; World Prison Populations, 2016).
While “an estimated 65 million people in the United States have criminal records,” Blacks and Latinos comprise 71.4% of the total US federal prison population (Prison Statistics, 2016; Hernández, et al., 2015). As of September 2016, there are a total of 192, 628 federally-confined inmates, almost an eight-fold increase since 1980, with 156,778 inmates confined in BOP-operated facilities, 21,834 in privately-managed facilities, and 14,016 in “other types of facilities” (Prison Statistics, 2016). Since less than two hundred thousand inmates reside in federally-operated facilities, this means that of the two million plus total US prison population, over 1,800,000 inmates are housed in state and local detention facilities.
Four general theories have historically been advanced as justification for sanctioning the punishment of criminal behavior: deterrence, just deserts, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. The impetus behind deterrence is to make crime too costly for criminals to engage in it. Just deserts introduce the notion of proportionality such that one’s punishment should be commensurable with the moral gravity of the crime committed. Incapacitation, i.e. incarceration, removes law breakers from society, either permanently or temporarily. If incarceration is temporary, then offenders are deemed to have “done their time” and “paid their debt to society” for the offense committed and may now, once again, enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship. As such, temporary incarceration suggests the possibility of rehabilitation (Muhlhausen, May 27, 2010). Societal chastisement, in the form of incarceration, is thus a penalty exacted from those who transgress the law, on the theory that humans are capable of learning from their errors.
While temporary incarceration and the theory of rehabilitation exist in the US criminal justice system, it is notable that ten US states permanently bar felons from ever voting once convicted, even after their sentences are completed. Twenty states restore inmate’s voting rights after they have served their time, parole, and probation; four states restore voting rights after inmates have served their time and parole; 14 states after incarceration is served; and in two states, viz. Maine and Vermont, felons may vote absentee while in prison (State Felon Voting Laws, 2016).
Recently, in the state of Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) restored voting rights to more than 200,000 former felons in April of 2016 only to see that state’s supreme court, only three months later, in July of 2016, agree with Republican legislators who had filed a petition accusing the governor of exceeding his authority. As Horwitz and Portnoy state: “The Democratic governor’s decision particularly affects black residents of Virginia: 1 in 4 African Americans in the state has been permanently banned from voting because of laws restricting the rights of those with convictions” (Horwitz and Portnoy, April 22, 2016). Thus, what is the basis for the non-restoration of voting rights once a criminal has served her or his time? Is there any merit to this denial or is it simply another method of racial discrimination?
In Virginia, as with so many states, the U.S. criminal justice system operates largely on a racialized basis, not only to maintain the class divisions within the larger society, but, as well, to divide prison populations amongst themselves. Because a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos are incarcerated in the United States and denied voting rights once their prison sentences are served, this effectively disenfranchises much of the working class in America, thus allowing the controllers of capital to rule with few checks to their aggrandizement of power and wealth. As such, the stigmatization of felons by permanently rescinding their voting rights in a number of states, constitutes a key indicator of how class rule is maintained in the United States.
 The five Federal Correctional Institutions in the State of West Virginia include prisons in Beckley, Gilmer, Hazelton, McDowell, and Morgantown. It is interesting to note that compared to West Virginia’s five federal correctional facilities, California has a total of six and New York has only two.
 These private FCIs are run by either Corrections Corporation of America, Management and Training Corporation, or the GEO Group, Inc.—the latter which maintains facilities in North America, Australian, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
 West Virginia hosts one federal prison camp at Alderson, WV.
When looking over the newsworthy events that took place in the United States throughout 2016, a common thread ties many of them together. So many major events illustrate a real failure of the powers that be to solve problems.
And these problems are not new. The epidemic of opiate addiction has been brewing since the 1990s when American doctors, incentivized by medical drug manufacturers, began over-prescribing pain killers. The crisis intensified when the US invasion of Afghanistan unleashed the country's poppy growers, flooding the market, and driving the price down. Now, cheap heroin is everywhere and people are dying. In 2015, more Americans died from drug overdose than from gun violence, another problem plaguing America. As 2016 comes to a close, the numbers of drug-related deaths are still rising.
The Pulse nightclub shooting broke records in 2016 for America's ongoing problem of gun violence. Mass shootings, in which deranged individuals with guns begin slaughtering people, have become a regular occurrence in recent years. Many times President Barack Obama has appeared on television to comfort a grieving nation and call for tighter gun control. The present order is unable to adequately address the issue, and the shootings continue.
Guns, Racism & Discontent
One could say that problems related to race are almost a built-in problem for the United States, which defined African enslaved persons as 3/5 of a human being in its Constitution. Since the end of slavery, after a bloody civil war, there have been endless protests, tensions, and controversies, both violent and peaceful, related to racial questions. The death of Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion who had aligned himself with Black nationalism and converted to Islam during the 1960s, gave the country a moment to reflect on the long history of racial strife.
2016 is the final year of the presidency of Barack Obama. His presidency began with so much optimism about a "post racial society" and the belief that this age-old source of disagreement on the American continent could be finally resolved with a dark skinned man as commander in chief. This final year of Obama's presidency is notable for illustrating how one blatantly unfulfilled these expectations.
Protests swept Charlotte, North Carolina in response to the killing of Keith Lamont Scott by police. The country nervously watched as unrest swept yet another city, with fresh memories of the violence that swept Baltimore and Ferguson in the previous year.
In addition to the thousands of peaceful protests, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Dallas, Texas, police officers were shot and killed by individuals who were angry about the documented wave of unpunished police brutality. After these shootings, many mostly white Americans, who had been almost silent during the continuous wave of "Black Lives Matter" protests, expressed sympathy for police. A huge gap in public opinion became very apparent.
The isolated, violent individuals who were outraged by police brutality were certainly not the only Americans to express their political views with firearms. The year of 2016 began with the seizure of federal property from January 2nd to February 11th by "sovereign citizens" and right-wing militia organizations in Oregon. A shootout with the FBI and state police eventually ensued. One of the armed militants was killed, and 27 were arrested. Gun-toting, right-wing organizations that talk of "constitutional liberties" and opposing the federal government are notably present across the US.
A Twist in American Politics
The 2016 presidential election, much like the increase of protests and political gun battles, revealed how divided, and desperate the country is. Bernie Sanders, a US senator from Vermont who describes himself as a "socialist," long a forbidden term in Americana, was welcomed onto the national political stage.
Millions of Americans voted for Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary. Leaked emails showed that the Democratic National Committee was working behind the scenes to ensure his defeat, and secure the nomination for longtime party power broker Hillary Clinton. The revelations showed a kind of cynical and dishonest internal atmosphere at the top of the Democratic Party, and therefore disillusioned many activists.
Sanders' challenge within the Democratic Party seemed mild compared to Trump's complete shake-up of the Republican Party. Donald Trump, a New York City real estate tycoon and billionaire, who declared his candidacy was at first treated almost as a joke, but ultimately won the election.
Trump's campaign used crass language, demonized Muslims and immigrant workers, opposed international trade deals, and criticized the failures of US military interventions. With slogans like, "America First" and "Make America Great Again," Trump won the electoral college vote, despite proof of a solid majority of voters favoring Clinton.
Neither Trump nor Sanders were, in reality, a very big departure from the American political status quo. Sanders talk of socialism was not a call for a centrally-planned economy, but just for some European-style welfare state reforms. Trump's nationalism and derogatory words for certain demographics is a far cry from fascism or Nazism. The sudden, unpredicted success of both political mavericks was based on an extreme dissatisfaction and a longing for "an outsider."
"You're on Your Own"
American political discourse has long been defined by liberalism. The ideals of the European enlightenment, expressed by John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and others, and applied by Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton put the individual above all else. In a repudiation of feudalism, the revolutionaries of 1776 embraced "freedom" as the true value of America.
In economic terms, this has meant unrestricted capitalism. Unlike most western countries, the US government does not provide public healthcare to its citizens. American college students, even those who attend public universities, must pay for their education, and millions remain in debt for decades. Employment is not guaranteed, and social services for low-income families are limited.
The American economic mantra is "personal responsibility," i.e. "you're on your own." While the US has the richest of the rich, measurements of basic societal health show that many get left behind. The rates of infant mortality, life expectancy, and poverty are statistically much worse than other western industrialized countries.
In social terms, American liberalism has meant an ever increasing break down of traditional structures. Religion is considered to be a personal matter, and government institutions are forbidden from expressing faith or invoking divine authority. The US Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Now debates about whether or not bathrooms in elementary schools should be gender segregated have erupted across America.
The ideology of liberalism, which has escalated over the course of American history, prescribes for the citizen to be like Thomas Jefferson's ideal "yoeman'; alone, unmolested and unattached to others, free to "pursue happiness" on his own, with no obligation to society, to his family, to God, or to anyone else.
However, as the crisis of racial tension illustrates, "No man is an island." Americans can watch the exact same video recordings, yet a majority of whites will defend the police, while African Americans will see brutality. Despite the obsessive individualism, Americans still identify themselves with groups they consider to be similar to themselves, and thus view the world accordingly.
Group identification is natural, and people have always had a collective nature. The entire history of humanity consists of humans cooperating, working together, agreeing on rules and expectations, and in the process, advancing civilization toward greater heights.
Liberalism & The American Dream
A severe lack of collective identity is very apparent in present day America. Items considered to be "public property" are in severe decay. The system of public transportation in Washington DC made national headlines when it shut down for a single day because of continued accidents, which had resulted in injuries and a single fatality. Throughout 2016, accidents plagued the Amtrak public train system, which like DC transit system, also faces a lack of funding. During the 2016 academic year, millions of children have been left without schools to attend, as their for-profit charter schools, run by corporations, which have replaced public schools in many cities, have closed down mid-semester.
In the states that ultimately secured Trump's victory (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) one can find numerous neighborhoods that were once prosperous, now filled with empty, foreclosed homes. The factories that once employed millions of American industrial workers have closed their doors. The jobs that have replaced them offer much lower pay, to a generation which is unlikely to see the once lauded "American dream" of middle class prosperity.
Suicide rates across the United States are rising, as are cases of mental illness. Polls show that Americans increasingly find a lack of meaning and purpose in their lives, as their TVs and iPhones push them to purchase more and more, and live in pursuit of short-term pleasures. Economic security is also in question, as employment is far more short term for young workers, while the cost of housing and other living expenses are rising.
The changing political stage and rising instability shows a desperation on the part millions who are dissatisfied. The widely acknowledged problems facing the country are simply not being addressed.
As Trump is sworn in at the beginning of 2017, the attempts to resolve the escalating crisis will continue. The search for answers outside of standard political discourse is likely to continue as well.