Posted by: Kristen Hicks | July 16, 2012

Our Prisons: A Great Failing in what Should be a Great Society

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” –Dostoevsky

That’s a line included in a recent Atlantic series on how we (mis)treat mentally ill prisoners in the United States prison system. It’s a disturbing read, but only emphasizes one of the many troubling issues surrounding how justice and punishment are administered in this country.

A while back, Mother Jones did an issue with a special focus on some of the problems plaguing our prisons and it opened my eyes to what is surely one of the biggest issues in this country that politicians never seem to think or talk about much. Thought it’s a few years old, it covers many problems that have not been resolved or even acknowledged as problems by much of our population.

Yes, health care and the economy are big, important issues that affect everyone, but they shouldn’t drown out how our justice system tears apart families, disproportionately targets the poor and people of color and does not achieve the aim of improving our society.Every once in a while, troubling statistics are thrown around in political conversations, like how we have more people in prison than every other country in the world and a startling percentage of the country’s African American male population has been imprisoned (more than were enslaved before the Civil War), but there’s too little followup on ways to do something about it and far too few discussion by those in power about why things currently work the way they do and the need to change them.

It’s hard to understand why our society values punishment over recovery for non-violent offenders. I’m not someone who goes out of my way to advocate for violent predators–I don’t worry too much about how happy and comfortable known murderers and rapists will be during their punishment, but these kinds of violent offenders only make up a small portion of our prison population.

Non-violent criminals, especially those whose crimes are inspired by addiction, widely recognized by doctors as a disease, should have a separate system of punishment more focused on re-integration into society. Why would we want someone non-violent and sick to be surrounded by those who are known to be dangerous for a determined length of time before we allow them back into mainstream society, now with worse job prospects than they had before? Doesn’t that risk turning mild offenders into far worse ones?

If the goal of our justice system is to protect the larger society from those who threaten it and, ideally, improve upon it, our current methods completely fly in the face of our intentions.  Some would say that’s not the goal of the justice system at all, but I can think of few arguments to support the idea that vengeance and punishment serve us better as goals than an improved society for all.

There are programs that are shown to help former prisoners re-join society as productive members, but they’re written off by many who see them as letting criminals off too easy. When you take into account the influence on a family of one of its members spending years in jail, the larger negative influences of prison on society become more marked.  For all the talk of family values in our culture, we do little to support the children that end up in foster care or largely destitute because of a parent locked up.

Via MotherJones: “I spent nearly four years shadowing a woman who’d just been released from prison. She’d been locked up for 16 years for a first-time drug crime, and her absence had all but destroyed her family. The criminal justice system had punished not only her but her entire family. How do you measure the years of wasted hours—riding on a bus to a faraway prison, lining up to be scanned and searched and questioned, sitting in a bleak visiting room waiting for a loved one to walk in? How do you account for all the dollars spent on collect calls from prison—calls that can cost at least three times as much as on the outside because the prison system is taking a cut? How do you begin to calculate the lessons absorbed by children about deprivation and punishment and vengeance? How do you end the legacy of incarceration?”

An especially frustrating point in the context of the political conversations dominating at the moment: running prisons is expensive, and more expensive the more prisoners are in them. With all the arguments about our nation’s debt and the need to cut spending, how has the idea that we’re over incarcerating been left off the table as a possible reform that can help our struggling governments save money?

At least one explanation many critics offer for why overpopulation in our prisons has become an issue to the degree it has is that many states have turned to privatization of the prison system. When imprisonment becomes tied to profits, powerful individuals and companies have an interest in more people being arrested and getting longer sentences for their crimes. The benefit of prison becomes detached from what’s good for society and tied to what’s profitable for a company. As in so many issues in our current political climate, those who already have money and power gain a disproportionate influence over policy and enforcement decisions over the poorest members of our society.

If you can identify someone’s values by how they spend their money, the United States is demonstrating that wars and incarceration are more important to us as a society than education and a healthy populace. Those aren’t this citizen’s values.

More resources:

I wish more politicians and voters would take the time to read these articles, each makes a persuasive case for the reasons why what we’re doing now doesn’t work and suggestions for ways we could do better.

How Louisiana Became the World’s Prison Capital – Fresh Air interview with Times Picayune reporter Cindy Chang

The Times Picayune expose the interview’s based on and a related 8-part video series which reveal how local sheriffs in Louisiana get financial incentives to incarcerate higher numbers of citizens

Too many laws, too many prisoners – The Economist  – “The prison was so crowded, even in solitary he had two roommates”

The Caging of America – The New Yorker – “What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment.”

The American Prison Nightmare – The New York Book Review – “Imprisonment does more than reflect the divides of race and class. It deepens those divides—walling off the disadvantaged, especially unskilled black men, from the promise of American life”

Prison Culture Blog – An ongoing resource examining the influences of the Prison Industrial Complex on our society

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