Ask the right questions… get better answers

How society asks the wrong questions of our correctional system

You break the law.  You go to jail.  Then what?

Well,“Welcome Home!”, because more than likely you’ll be back again and again to enjoy the best creature comforts and social bum etiquette lessons public money can buy.

It’s more akin to a social experiment than a system of rehabilitation.  It would almost make me feel better to think it was an experiment – almost.  At least there would be an intention rather than the aimlessness of our national correctional policy.

Since the 70’s get tough on crime campaigns the number of inmates has increase five-fold.  The US has the highest incarceration rate in the civilized world – including Russia.  Though I would be very careful not to rush to judgment on the superiority of the Russian correctional system.  It’s just an interesting statistic.

Inmate recidivism approaches 60%.

“So”, I ask, “is this working?“

Well to answer that you’d have to get past all the other personal political fodder people throw in the way.

“It’s because of the rise of the for-profit prison industry!”

“We need to protect our children!”

“We need to set an example!”

“We can’t let people get away with breaking the law!”

All these statements have a point, but they all actually miss the point.

The for-profit industry arose, as most for-profit industries, because of the “need” for more correctional facilities.  Yes, there is evidence of corruption, and the rise of profit centers that make money off of imprisoning our citizens may on the surface be unseemly. But let’s not blame the private corrections industry.  They are answering the question – how do we house all of our criminals?

The cries of protecting society or protecting our children are hard to argue with. This is not because the logic is inviolate but that it is too vague and emotional to be useful.  What does protecting our society and protecting our children actually mean in a practical sense?  And is incarceration endpoint for achieving that?

Protests for not letting people get away with breaking the law or being “soft on crime” is another deceiving argument since no one would agree either of those are acceptable.  People break the law all the time.  We’re all law-breakers.  Ever jay-walk?  Ever speed? Not wear your seatbelt?  However, the supporters of “eye for an eye” judgements answer the question, “what will people think of me if I’m not out for the swiftest, harshest, most “effective” punishment?” These people are more concerned about themselves than the prisoner, the victim, or even the societal problems in question.

There are many others. This is not a comprehensive list.

Rarely do you find sympathy or empathy for the prisoner.  Rehabilitation comes up on occasion, but it’s usually vague and conferred only to the recovering drunkards or drug addicts.  These people, society has taught us, have a disease and should be somewhat pitied but still treated harshly, lest someone think we’ve gone “soft” again.

Why is this discussion important?  While this post will not pretend to answer all the questions about incarcerations, it will deal with the MOST important question – “What is the purpose our correctional system?”

On the Federal Bureau of Prisons website the stated purpose is as follows:

The Federal Bureau of Prisons protects society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens

This is a very bureaucratic and stale way to say that our system is about Punishment and Rehabilitation.

So I come back to the original question.  What is the purpose of our prison system?

It is a very simple question, but it comes with hard choices.   Just because it is simple does not make it easy.

If our correctional system is purely about punishment, then the system is actually set up pretty well.  We have plenty of things to punish people for, from drugs to theft to rape and murder.  We have lawyers and judges to make sure people have fair trials, and by-and-large, we’ll say the justice system works well to fairly punish people.


But here is where the system fails.  When you make the purpose of a system to punish people, whether you like it or not, that system will find ways to punish them.  It may seem ridiculous and obvious but you only see it in light of what else might be possible.  By over emphasizing punishment, you are in fact saying, if not out loud, that people are irredeemable and that they must be continuously punished, Sisyphus style.  To what purpose, one can only guess, though I suspect our Judeo-Christian values are somewhat to blame, but that is another post.

What if, instead of punishment you focused on rehabilitation?  If a system is structured to rehabilitate rather than punish, you are answering a fundamentally different question.  Yes, a person is being punished at the moment for the crime that made them a threat to society, but that fundamentally, they ARE redeemable.  This system would look for ways to empower this individual rather than disempower them.

The structure of these two paradigms might appear on the surface to be very similar – i.e. you’d still need laws, police, jails, and correctional facilities.  What would be different would be how society would treat these individuals.   In turn, how these individuals thought of themselves would be different.  They would at least see a POSSIBILITY of a different outcome.

Now our prison system is a little bit of both.  States rights make different state systems have slightly different bents.  But it seems pretty clear that nationwide we have a problem with our correctional system.  We make more and more laws to punish people, which is extremely effective at finding and imprisoning “criminals”.  However, imprisoning people is not a means to an end and the country is spending billions of dollars funding a system that, by its very nature, will never be satisfied.  Can we really say the War on Drugs has done anything but make smoking pot even cooler for teenagers?

The answer is to take a step back and answer the basic question about corrections.  I would prefer to live in a society that truly sets up a system where an inmate has an opportunity at success and not a virtual life-sentence of repeat offending.

I didn’t even get into the reasons why the recidivism rate is so high, but that may be for another post.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that some people “get it”.  In NY they have instituted a partnership with Cornell to provide education to inmates so that they have marketable skills when they leave prison.  This is just one way to combat one of the many reasons why people turn to crime.  This is a system that is wrestling with the real question of rehabilitation and not just punishment.

When money is spent this way, the inevitable protest will always be “that’s not fair” or “why should they benefit from being a criminal?”  These protests say more about the person than the policy they are questioning.  It implies that the criminal should be punished in perpetuity, until such time as you, protestor, decide they’ve suffered enough to justify getting some benefit.  To hell with the damage to society from how we treat our criminals, as long as you get some satisfaction they are being forever punished.

My point is this.  The current prison system, while certainly not a monolith and much more like a hideous Chimera, is flawed and I believe too skewed towards a system that is orchestrated to punish and incarcerate people.  This is why we see the incarceration rates we do and, yes, the number of private penitentiaries exploding.

But “NO” this is not a flaw in capitalism or in our vigilance to justice.

It’s a system that was always destined to fail.

In a few words, the prison system is not very FYMP.  We better correct ourselves before we wreck ourselves.  That is all.

4 Replies to “Ask the right questions… get better answers”

  1. As with most entrenched problems in bureaucratic institutions, organizational inertia is one of the hardest barriers to overcome, especially in sectors where the societal outcry for reform is less widespread. Our monolithic prison system has changed very little over the years because, frankly, no one really cares.

    Aside from a vocal minority who raise many of the issues you have (and include others like racial disparity & the U.S. drug policies), there are very few people invested in finding solutions to an issue that is so far to the periphery of the lives of most Americans.

    The prison system is one of the few social institutions that it is genuinely viewed as OK to be unconcerned with, or even disdainful of. Unfortunately, cycles of violence and criminality don’t ends with incarceration; often that is only the beginning. Our human inclination to self-righteousness makes it attractive for us to simply claim that “those people” are getting what they deserve, but, as you highlighted in your blog, this punishment over rehabilitation mentality is counterproductive.

    None of us exist within a bubble, and if we continue to leave a significant percentage of our population to languish or stagnate for extended periods of time, the negative ramifications for our society as a whole will only become more apparent with time.

  2. There is always money to be made from a system of slavery. Ever since slavery was institutionalized nationally in the 19th century (read the 13th amendment, carefully) the correctional system has been geared, like any other business, for growth. It is also a convenient and efficient means of removing competition from the labor pool by locking up, ironically, the descendants of those who once provided free labor, in disproportionate numbers.

    1. You make an interesting point, and it’s not a perspective I tackled in this piece. It’s a pretty provocative claim to say that one of the correctional system’s purposes is to “remove competition from the labor pool by…”. It would seem to me that while there is no doubt some institutional racism still in the system that there are more likely culprits that contribute mightily to the incarceration rate. Dealing with these pieces (like the opportunity gaps between ethnic groups) will be part of holistic method to solve this problem. My argument on a high level is to treat these people, whatever their background, not as criminals, but as people that can be “saved”. Not in any spiritual sense, but in a real civic responsibility criterion. The interesting thing about “following the money” in this case is that they are not making money off the labor of the inmates but just in the actual numbers of people incarcerated. While I’m not in a usual default position to demonize private companies, anytime corporate and government money/interests overlap, you need to look at the corruption problem very conscientiously. Crony-capitalism not only gives capitalism a bad-rap, it also robs people of their money, and in this case freedom. Thanks for the comment!

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