The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Most Vassar students reading this are likely familiar with this fact. It’s very frequently thrown around by activists for a number of causes ranging from our country’s draconian drug laws to prison reform to even prison abolition.
Regardless, this data clearly suggests that the United States relies much too heavily on prisons as a solution to societal problems. To Americans, they are the end all, be all of criminal justice. The majority of people accept, without question, that imprisonment is a fair consequence of most crimes.
Why though? Why have we come to the conclusion that the response to almost every crime is to isolate the perpetrator from society, to separate them from their friends, family and loved ones? Why do we then often put them in a harsh and demeaning environment where they are forced to interact with people who have committed crimes a thousand times worse than theirs? And isn’t it comical that we do so under the guise of this being for their or society’s betterment?
Note that I am not a prison abolitionist. I believe that there are people who commit acts of violence so terrible that they must be locked away for the betterment of society. I don’t look at someone like Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy and naively believe that they can be trusted to roam the streets.
But what is the use of locking away someone who isn’t a violent criminal? The most common example cited is drug users. Why does society need to be protected from an addict? And, more importantly, how is locking that addict into a prison environment where they’re very unlikely to get the services they need to recover going to help them? How is isolating them from society going to benefit their lives at all?
But why stop this conversation with drug users? Bernie Madoff ’s actions made people homeless, and yet now he is fed and clothed and housed with taxpayer money. Is this truly justice? But the American people approve of Bernie Madoff ’s imprisonment because he’s an awful person, and people like it when awful people go to prison.
I’m reminded of Howard Zinn, who once wrote that imprisonment “does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture.” Prison is meant to be both a form of punishment and rehabilitation; in truth it is far too often all of the former and virtually none of the latter. Imprisonment is used purely as a means by which society enacts its own twisted vengeance: occasionally on people who deserve it but overwhelmingly on people who don’t.
It is no wonder, therefore, that recidivism rates are so high. According to a report by the United States Sentencing Commission, which, according to the Huffington Post, drew on the data of “more than 25,400 former inmates who were either released outright from federal prisons or placed on probation in 2005,” the recidivism rate among federal prisoners is 49.3 percent (The Huffington Post, “Report Documents U.S. Recidivism Rates for Federal Prisoners”, 03.25.2017).
This number goes up to 67.6 percent when only looking at inmates under the age of 21 (The Huffington Post, “Report Documents U.S. Recidivism Rates for Federal Prisoners”, 03.25.2017). According to one study by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, recidivism among state prisoners is 67.8 percent (Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States In 2005: Patterns from 2005 To 2010 — Update”, 04.22.2014).
This is because, upon being released from prisons, former inmates enter a drastically different society than that one they left behind: Technology has changed. Culture has changed. The workforce has changed.
During this time, prisoners are separated from those who love them the most. They are forcibly deprived of those support systems while they undergo likely one of the worst experiences of their lives. More importantly, when they get out of prison, having lost contact with the people they loved for so long, they find themselves alone in the world. The only contacts they may still have are those they made while in prison— those that could realistically lead them back to a life of crime.
For the staggering number of Americans in prison on drugs charges, that lack of a support system can lead right back to those practices that led them to prison in the first place. This is made worse by the fact that it is very likely that they did not receive the services they needed while incarcerated. Especially if they are poor, which many are, they find themselves no better off in terms of treatment, and oftentimes much worse off.
This is because not only do these former prisoners find themselves alone, but they have considerable difficulty achieving gainful employment. Prison, no matter the offense, renders its victims nearly unemployable. Most potential employers, in addition to a fair amount of landlords and banks, ask applicants to disclose a criminal record. Even if no prison time results from it, merely being arrested could ruin a person’s life and career prospects.
Therefore, with their only contacts being hardened criminals, they turn to a life of crime. The poor, including former inmates, determine that, if they are successful at crime, they at least will be able to pay their bills. If they are unsuccessful and are caught, then they are housed in a prison system and, for at least a while, no longer have to worry about bills.
This puts America in an odd position, in which imprisonment is both one of the worst things a person could possibly go through and a cynical form of affordable housing. Such a system is inherently unfit to improve society, and results in increased recidivism and reduced social mobility. It enforces the cyclical nature of poverty. It acts as a bizarre form of vengeance that society inflicts upon those not wealthy or lucky enough to avoid punishment.
There are alternatives to mass incarceration. The overwhelming majority of people in prison for drug-related offenses should not be there at all. However, if the government is going to take the position that serious drug use should be discouraged, it would be infinitely more prudent to invest that money in programs focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
For other non-violent crimes that stem from poverty, the United States could benefit by looking towards creative solutions that give those who have resorted to a life of crime another chance to succeed and invest in programs that ensure these people have the training and education necessary to make it in the modern workforce.
Moreover, the American justice system could emphasize probation, fines and community services over prison time. Nonviolent offenders can be made to serve society in a way that is not punitive, but rather makes them productive and useful to the lives of their communities. Therefore, even when their sentence is over, they have an opportunity to thrive.
Even within our prisons, there should be more emphasis on programs that rehabilitate prisoners and help them make the all-important transition of re-entering society. Instead of being a complete time of isolation, prisons can ensure that their inmates are still able to improve valuable skills and keep in touch with their support system so that they are ready to one day re-enter society.
While there are certainly those in the system who may be beyond rehabilitation, by emphasizing it anyway the justice system can adequately fulfill its dual role of protecting society and rehabilitating criminals.
There is no sense in a system that is so intent on punishing people that it sacrifices important and benevolent opportunities in the process. It is more important to sacrifice society’s thirst for vengeance for its own benefit.