“If you commit a crime, you incur a debt to society, you create an imbalance in the scales of justice. . . . Pain, suffering, isolation, deprivation, even death are often viewed as the only way to make right the wrong, the only way to pay back the debt and the only way to re-balance the scales” (Restorative Justice).
My Personal Interest
Bound up in the concept of a penitentiary is the idea that people go to prison to do penance and repent for their crimes so that, eventually, they will be released as reformed human beings who can resume their place in society. This was the goal of the Quakers when they created the first penitentiaries in the United States (Understanding Mass Incarceration). Since the creation of formal correction facilities, however, there has been tension between rehabilitation and punishment in our criminal justice system. Some politicians argue that we need to be tough on crime and impose long sentences; reformers hold fast to the idea that incarceration must include opportunities for self improvement. When I read about prisons today it seems that the emphasis is on punishment and incapacitation: inmates are often kept in horrible conditions with little chance for education or improvement. When finally released, many struggle to re-enter society. In light of our huge recidivism rates, it appears that many people are never able to make a successful life on the outside. If we still believe in rehabilitation, it seems that our prison system is failing. Do we?
Exploring the History of Penal Institutions in the U.S.
While various forms of criminal punishment have been present in the U.S. since the creation of colonial America, penal institutions did not emerge as the most popular form of punishment until the early nineteenth century (Kamisar). Before that point, public shaming, fines and whippings were the most widely used sanctions (Kamisar). During the nineteenth century, however, there was a growing public aversion towards hangings, whippings, and mutilations, along with increasing skepticism of their deterrent value. People began to believe that criminals could be rehabilitated if the prisons had a “well-regimented and corruption-free environment” (Kamisar).
Despite its faults, the rhetoric of reformation gave the penal institution an aura of respectability, so the prison system continued to grow. During the Progressive Era in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was a surge in prison reform that emphasized individualizing punishment. Beginning in the 1980’s the enactment of harsh drug laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and a huge investment of funds lead to an explosion in the prison population: the number of incarcerated people in the United States rose from approximately five hundred thousand in 1980 to more than two million in 2013 (Alexander). Movies like 13th by Ava Duvernay, books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and prison abolitionists such as Critical Resistance have brought attention to the need for systemic reform, but given the continued growth of our prison population and the persistent racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system, it is clear that the problem is far from solved.
The Present Problem: Can We Mend Mass Incarceration?
Mass incarceration is a massive problem in the United States. The prison industrial complex disproportionally locks up African Americans at an alarming rate, exacerbates inmates’ pre-existing mental health issues, specifically targets poor communities and those suffering from substance abuse, fails to reshape inmates into contented law-abiding members of society, uses funds that could otherwise be allocated to increase employment and educational opportunities for the poor, and overall negatively impacts the entirety of our society.
A major issue is simply the number of people we put behind bars. Although the United States only makes up 5% of the world’s population, we hold 25% of the world’s prisoners (Kilgore). While African Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population, they are 40% of the people locked up in prisons and jails (Kilgore). The expense of operating such a massive prison system is enormous. Since 2007 the U.S. has spent over $70 billion in funding for the prison system each year (Kilgore).
Some reforms are now underway. Last year Congress passed criminal justice reform legislation which addressed disparities in federal crack cocaine sentences and limited mandatory minimum sentences. Advocates have successfully filed suit against cash bail systems in Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Texas, and some communities have set up their own bail funds (Clein). The Ban the Box campaign works to prevent blanket discrimination against formerly incarcerated people by removing criminal history questions from employment applications. Many states have re-examined laws that deny ex-felons the fundamental right of voting. Some critics argue that the prison system itself is the problem and that we need to develop a different understanding of crime and justice. Advocates of restorative justice seek to shift the focus away from administering punishment to repairing harm (Restorative Justice).
All over the U.S. activists are working to ‘solve’ our problem of mass incarceration through protests and legislation, and have progressed in some areas. But is it enough? No significant changes have been made to the way we view criminals in this country, or who we label ‘dangerous.’ Simply putting millions of people in jail allows us to ignore and incarcerate our social problems of poverty and disease. The system cannot change until the mindset of our society changes from focusing on retribution to fostering repair and rehabilitation.
The Solution: Redefining Criminal Justice
For real change to happen we need to change the way we think about crime and punishment. The average American sees criminals as people who need to be punished for what they’ve done, a viewpoint that disregards individual circumstances and what may have led to the incident. Our criminal justice system reflects this focus on punishment: we see it in the harshness of our sentencing legislation and the lack of support for ex-cons after they have served their time.
In Norway the justice system is formed around the idea of “restorative justice” (Sterbenz). With this approach, the focus is on fulfilling the victim’s needs for confrontation and closure, rather than solely on punishing the defendant. The U.S. should learn from Norway and implement rehabilitation and restorative justice programs, not only to benefit inmates, but also to create a safer society that will benefit everyone on the outside. Norway also endorses humane treatment of inmates, attempting to make prison life akin to life in the outside world. For example, the Halden Prison doesn’t require uniforms, has spacious bedrooms (reminiscent of Ikea), has shared common rooms with amenities such as an XBox and a well-equipped kitchen with porcelain plates and metal silverware, and jobs for inmates in retail and woodworking (Sterbenz). By treating inmates like human beings, Norway has the lowest recidivism rates in the world and has one of the lowest incarceration rates (Sterbenz).
If the United States were to use some of the billions of dollars we spend every year on prisons to design smaller, humane prisons like Norway’s, that would be a huge step forward. In Norway, prisons are government-run, so no one benefits from incarcerating more people. However, in the U.S. parts of the prison system are privatized and therefore companies profit from incarcerating more people, which creates an incentive for these very powerful and wealthy corporations to support harsh sentences and prison expansion.
What You Can Do to Change the System
The system itself cannot change until our society’s mindset evolves from a preoccupation with revenge to a commitment to repair and rehabilitation. By educating ourselves about injustices in the prison system and approaching issues of criminality with compassion, we can all do our part to bring about this change. Each person in the United States is a constituent part of society’s overall mindset, so each person matters. Together we can bring about the changes we need to see in our prison system.
Here is my: Works Cited!