Prison Blues

This is something I’ve wanted to write about for a while, but the Steubenville case has inspired me to do this now.

Let’s examine our prison system. It’ll be fun!

What are the Purposes of Incarceration?

These are the 5 that I’m aware of:

1. Punishment/Justice – It just seems fair that when someone does something wrong, they should feel bad. So we force them to feel bad by taking away certain pleasures or rights, or by foisting unpleasantness upon them. If someone murders someone, we definitely want them to be in all kinds of pain.

2. Atonement – This is similar to #1, but I distinguish the two. In the case of atonement, the criminal is made to feel bad as a *payment* to ……someone (society? victims’ families?). This is where people get the phrase “he paid his debt to society.”

3. Deterrent – Showing people that if you do something bad, bad things will happen to you, so don’t do bad things!

4. Quarantine – Keeping the bad folks away from the rest of us. So that a) they don’t do bad stuff to us and b) they don’t turn some of US bad too.

5. Reform – To help criminals to grow and improve so that they can be released and become productive, responsible members of society.

My Thoughts on These Purposes:

1. Punishment/Justice – I get it. I have a heart. A bleeding heart, sometimes. If someone murders someone, hell yeah I feel good when they get the full extent of the law thrown at them. But. This is completely emotion-based. It stops us from thinking more deeply, from examining the reasons why this person committed a crime, the ways in which we as a society allow this kind of thing to continue, what is needed to avoid it in the future, and what (if anything) can happen now to truly rectify this situation.

2. Atonement – I understand this too, but to a lesser degree. How is a convict “paying his debt” by sitting in a jail cell for a while? What kind of currency is he giving us? His time? His unhappiness? I think it should be more practical. How about a criminal pays his debt by working? This is not a novel concept, of course, but I think it should be more widespread. Sure, it used to be license plates. Now it could be any number of things. Companies always complain about how they have no choice but to outsource because it’s cheap. Know what’s really cheap? Convict labor.

3. Deterrent – Uhh…all I have to say is: Do YOU think it’s working?

4. Quarantine – Yes, it makes perfect sense to keep bad people away from good people. HOWEVER. People aren’t generally “bad” or “good.” Not really. People make mistakes, have weaknesses, get desperate. Some people were born to depraved/faulted/stupid parents who royally messed them up. Some people have undiagnosed illnesses or disorders. Some people do what they feel they have to do in order to survive in their screwed up communities. Do we give up on them? Do we just toss them onto the pile with all the others? And guess what! Guess what happens when we put them all together in one place where they have nothing to do but form alliances, make plans, and get stronger. Yeah. Then we let them out. And now they’ve gained muscle mass and a bunch of new friends who also like doing bad stuff. Smaaaaart. Also, our prisons are overcrowded and SERIOUSLY expensive. So if we can avoid throwing someone away into a really expensive, overflowing bucket, let’s do it.

I will say, while I disagree with the quarantine reasoning in general, there is one exception. There are people in this world who are sociopaths. And there is no hope for them. If a person lacks empathy (which sociopaths do), then they will never be a normal, productive member of society. In their case, depending on the severity of their crime(s), they should be locked up forever, or…death penalty.

5. Reform– Yes, this please! This is my favorite. Only problem? We are SOOOO not doing this. Like I said before, we stick “bad guys” in a building with a bunch of other “bad guys”, and give them basically nothing to do. So they watch tv, exercise, and hang out with each other (often treating each other horrendously, which is a whole other blog post). And what can they do when they’re released? What respectable company would hire an ex-con? It’s hard enough finding a job as a goody-two-shoes with a Master’s Degree, quality references, and no breaks in employment. Imagine not having worked for 10 years, not having any marketable skills, and having no one but perhaps a parole officer or transition counselor to recommend you. No wonder recidivism is so high. What else can they do but return to the only life they’ve known?

What Should We Be Doing?

As someone with no actual expertise on this topic, I have a lot of opinions. This all just seems very common sense to me. Here’s what we should be doing.

1. Okay, obviously there are so many things that need to change at a societal level to PREVENT crime from happening in the first place. I mean we could talk forever about racism, job creation, minimum wage, education (this is my personal calling), health care/mental health care, even abortion laws have a huge impact on crime (read Freakonomics). Prevention should be our biggest focus.

But this post is about prison. What should it look like? Should it even BE “prison”?

2. What needs to change first is our thinking about what to do with criminals. We are so black and white, feelings-based about criminal justice. Once the court determines that they did something bad, we ship them off to “prison” and we can all feel good. Justice has been served, we can all move on with our lives and never think about these people again because they’ve been dealt with. It’s all very satisfying for us. But it gets us no where as a society (as I’ve explained above).

Let’s take the Steubenville case, for example. This is a touchy subject because there is so much tossed in with it (rape, male privilege, new technologies, etc.), but it’s one good example of what happens with our justice system. These boys committed depraved, unthinkable acts. I’m disgusted by them, by the society that created them, by the community that defended them, and by anyone who tries to blame their victim for their actions.

But. These two boys will now be incarcerated. This will make it much more difficult for them to become productive, responsible members of society. My ultimate concern is what is best for society. And what we’ve done with these boys is merely added to our future population of ex-cons. Should they have gotten away scot-free? No. But I think that they should atone for what they’ve done while receiving rehabilitative treatment. Not because I feel bad for them, but because I want to live in the most productive, responsible society possible.

3. We should have different levels of consequences, depending on the crime and the individual.

We can start with requiring certain things of the individual (psychotherapy, drug rehab, career counseling, volunteering, community service, etc.), without locking them up anywhere. The point would be  to require things that would be helpful to the individual AND society. Because some of the things that we could require (i.e. fines, restricting transportation, etc.) could be detrimental to the individual. For example, paying fines might lead to the acquiring of funds through illegal means, or restricting transportation makes finding and keeping employment more difficult. We already do this to a certain degree, so I would just support the development and growth of this approach.

The next level would be a residential situation. Many criminals are too dangerous to be roaming the streets on their own, so I do think that they should be kept from the public for a time. But while they are incarcerated, they should be expected to behave as much like the rest of society as possible. This means that they work full-time. This could be physical labor (factory, farm, car repair, etc.), or office work (call-center, data entry, etc.), or any number of things. They could pay for some of their own expense. They would be expected to learn and grow, so that when they are released, they have gained skills, appropriate work experience, and self-efficacy. They could use their experiences while incarcerated on their resumes. They could also be more easily linked up with work on the outside. For example, they worked in a call-center on the inside? Boom! Find a call-center job on the outside.

They would also be provided with various types of growth-promoting activities. Psychotherapy, drug treatment, anger management classes, yoga/meditation, life skills classes (e.g. cooking), mentorship programs, academic courses, animal therapy, volunteering. These people should be busy. They need to feel that they have a place in this world, and that they are valued. This is hard to get on board with when you’re facing someone who murdered another person. But if it helps you, remind yourself that it’s not for the good of the criminal, it’s for the good of society. (One note: obviously I wish these programs and more were more readily available to people on the outside as well, particularly children. I could write another blog post about that.)

The social system of the “prison” should be given a great deal of consideration. These people are going to form relationships, good or bad. Great care should be taken in ensuring that good relationship building is supported, and problematic developments are addressed.

The transition from the inside to the outside is crucial. Prior to release, convicts should be given a transition counselor who can help them to find housing, employment, and social connections in the outside community. After release, the counselor will be there to support the needs of the new citizen, whatever they may be. The transition back to the outside should be easier when life on the inside more closely resembles society.

4. The last level of consequence is the one for sociopaths. I don’t know of any good arguments for spending many resources on them, so this is when the death penalty becomes attractive to me. The only issue is diagnosing sociopaths. It’s not like a blood test, so I would definitely want to be certain that a person truly is a sociopath before making any hard and fast decisions. But that’s another blog post as well.

Thoughts? Objections? Additions?


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