The Problem With Prisons

(and the Solution)

by Joyce Arthur

© copyright January, 1995

The United States imprisons more people per capita than any nation in the world. People think jail is a solution to crime, but do they really understand the consequences of putting a human being in a cage for five to ten years, or longer? I’m afraid most don’t.

The business of prisons is to turn human beings into emotionally crippled, institution-dependent, and dangerous people who are even more likely to commit crimes after serving time than if they hadn’t gone to jail in the first place. That’s what prisons do, they can’t help it. They’re a breeding ground for misery, depression, hate, and bitterness, because the traditional prison model is based on punishment, coercion, intimidation, aggression, and fear. Even at their best, prisons are unnatural and dehumanizing. When your basic freedoms are taken away, by which I mean the ability to control your own life and make your own decisions, you lose your independence, privacy, dignity, self-esteem, incentive, and hope. These are fundamental things that we all need just to stay sane and human. It makes little difference if prisoners have amenities like personal TVs and steak dinners—that’s not freedom. It’s insane to lock up hundreds of thousands of people, over 95% of whom will be released back into society some day. Do you want to live next door to some angry person who’s suffered years of abuse at the hands of the correction system, and who hasn’t learned a thing about how to survive in the real world?

In a way, it doesn’t matter what crimes prisoners have committed. They’re human beings and prison by its very nature is cruel and unusual punishment that no-one deserves. Most people hate to see animals locked up in cages, but we have no compunctions about inflicting that same torture on our fellow humans, people who are, for the most part, simply products of our own troubled society. We created them! Where’s our compassion? It makes my blood boil when I hear that smug, heartless refrain: “Lock ’em up and throw away the key!” If we grew up in a violent ghetto with absent or abusive parents, we would be the ones behind bars, just like the criminals we love to hate. In fact, most people can be provoked to murder under the right circumstances. We’re all human—we’re driven by our basic needs and temporary passions, and we all make mistakes, sometimes big ones. So when we think of prisoners, we should be willing to acknowledge the real truth, which is, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Most prisoners fully deserve a second chance at life. How the hell are they supposed to become model citizens if no-one will even give them a job? That attitude just forces people back to crime in order to survive. We expect the impossible from our ex-cons. To give just one example: a prisoner who serves many years often develops strong friendships in prison. On the outside, in his community, many of his friends and acquaintances share his socio-economic status, attitudes, and often, criminal tendencies. Yet, when he is released on parole, we demand that he not associate with anybody who has a criminal record or who would be a bad influence. To do that, he has to give up all of his friends (inside and outside) and move to a strange community so he won’t accidentally run into any of them. That’s a hard thing for anybody to do, and it’s doubly difficult for an insecure, vulnerable ex-con with poor prospects. We expect miracles!

At least half of all prisoners are in jail for victimless crimes, such as drug possession. These people aren’t even criminals, by humanist standards. As for the other half, I know that victims of crime cry for revenge, and their feelings are completely understandable—if one of my loved ones was brutally murdered, I would probably want the murderer to be burned at the stake—slowly! But revenge is not only gruesome and dangerous, it’s completely useless and counter-productive. I’m sorry, but hurting someone in return just so we can feel better is not a good enough reason to do it. That’s why the meting out of justice must be taken out of the hands of victims and given to impartial third parties.

True justice demands restitution, not retribution. Besides, if punishment is supposed to help prisoners mend their evil ways, how come the recidivism rate is so high? If jail is supposed to be a deterrent, why do so many people end up there? If prison is supposed to prepare people for living on the outside, in a free, democratic society, what good is a political and power structure that operates just like a concentration camp? How can a prisoner learn to respect himself and the rights of others when his living environment is a complete negation of those ideals? Let’s face it, not only does the system NOT work, it CAN’T work.

Why do we have so many criminals in the first place? For lots of reasons—dearth of opportunity, poverty, parental abuse, mental illness, physiological and genetic defects, ignorance, racism, social injustice, inadequate support programs for first offenders and ex-cons, and last but not least, laws against victimless crimes. There are two common denominators that a large number of criminals share—low IQ and poverty. IQ is a factor because the threat of prison acts as a deterrent mainly for intelligent people, who tend to be better at controlling their emotions, including their aggressive tendencies. Poverty is a factor because being in a state of deprivation compared to others creates resentment and bitterness. Also, people who live on the edge have less to lose, so it becomes psychologically easier for them to commit a crime. Now, it’s not anybody’s fault if they have a low IQ or live in poverty, but if someone has one or both of these characteristics, he or she is more likely to end up in prison. That’s injust.

Our society alienates and dehumanizes law-breakers, and prisoners tend to internalize the prevailing attitude that they’re no-good, useless trash. We’ve turned jails into human wastebaskets, and once garbage has been thrown away, no one cares about it or wants to deal with it anymore. So everything just escalates—the prisoners get tougher and more bitter, the crimes get more violent, society gets angrier and less tolerant, and the number of jails keeps growing. It’s a vicious cycle and a senseless, horrible waste of human lives.

The solutions are pretty obvious, but let me qualify what I’m going to suggest here because, while the solutions are possible to implement (if the government had guts), they will never be implemented, because our capitalistic system would not allow it. Not that there’s a conspiracy or anything—it’s just that big business, through its stockholders, basically controls where government money is spent, and it won’t be spent fixing social problems like poverty and injustice. But here goes, anyway.

There must be a major overhaul of economic, educational, and social programs with the aim of abolishing poverty, ignorance, and social inequity. When people are given the opportunity to participate fully in society and to attain the benefits that our society offers, they tend to respect themselves and others. When people are in this frame of mind, they don’t want to rob or kill.

Drugs should be legalized. This is the only necessary social reform that has a chance of coming about someday, because there’s money in it. Government-controlled drug production would also make drugs safer, bring the cost of drugs way down, break the back of the illegal drug industry, and cut violent crime in half. Money now spent on drug wars could be used to set up drug education and rehabilitation programs to help people deal with drug abuse.

Prisons should be phased out, except some for the most unresponsive, dangerous criminals. In fact, the only good reason to have prisons at all is to protect society from dangerous criminals. Funny thing is, the vast majority of prisoners aren’t dangerous. And with a progressively healthier society, fewer and fewer dangerous criminals would be produced, so that almost all prisons could be abolished eventually. As a substitute for prison, increased use should be made of alternative sentencing, such as community work, victim restitution, compulsory education, employment programs, and transition housing. But in the meantime, shorter jail sentences would go a long way to keep our prisoners human. Except for the most dangerous, hardened offenders, no-one should ever spend more than five consecutive years in prison, regardless of the crime.

Existing prisons should be run like co-operatives. Prisoners should have a say in the process and should eventually be given the means to run the prison system itself, with most prison staff acting the part of consultants, counsellors, and mediators instead of authority figures (a few security staff would still be required, of course). Facilities should provide a reasonable standard of physical care, and provide for the inmates’ need for safety, privacy, dignity, autonomy, incentive, education, and counselling. Local communities should be closely involved with the rehabilitation of prisoners, because isolation from the community is a significant factor in the failure of prisons to rehabilitate inmates. Prisoners who have earned the community’s trust should be allowed regular access to the outside world, especially to seek employment. This will prepare the inmate for living successfully on the outside. Prisons should be co-ed, because same-sex environments are unnatural and unhealthy. Enforced sexual deprivation has negative consequences, and the presence of women would have a civilizing influence on men and reduce violence within prisons. Because there are many more male than female prisoners, wives and girlfriends should be allowed regular, private access to their imprisoned mates. After all, how can we expect rapists, wife-beaters, and other misogynists to learn to relate to women if they never see any?

You might think that my reformed prison sounds like a wonderful place to live, and that everybody would start committing crimes just so they can go there. In a way, you’re right. That’s why prison reform won’t work until the society as a whole has been reformed. You can’t have a jail that’s better than the world around it. (Nowadays, people sometimes go to jail on purpose, because they’re in such a desperate situation that giving up all their rights and freedoms is a worthwhile trade-off for some security and three meals a day.) Attempts at prison reform have always failed because the prison administration is set up to control the inmates and there’s not enough incentive for prison staff to change that system. Until society learns new attitudes and decides to hand over most of the prison system to the inmates themselves, prison reform will never work. The ultimate goal then, is a healthy, functional society that needs only a very few humane prisons, which would act as temporary holding facilities for most prisoners until they are rehabilitated. These prisons would still withhold some important freedoms, primarily the right to live and participate fully in outside society. Prisons would also still separate people from their friends, family, and lifestyle (for much of the time at least). These restrictions are enough deterrence and punishment—anything else is overkill.

The bottom line is that jails are a relic of an earlier, barbaric age. They don’t solve crime. Instead, they create more crime and more victims by abusing and destroying the humanity of people who’ve fallen (or been pushed) through the widening cracks in our disintegrating society. We should all be ashamed that we still treat these fellow humans like a bunch of animals.