Nelson Mandela, revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist, once said that “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” Mandela’s quote has been used to fuel prison reform and ensure that prisons treat prisoners humanely. The time has come where it may be time to reform the American prison system again.
When talking about the prison system, one must talk about the attitudes surrounding it. There exists in this country a conversation about whether or not we need to be hard on crime. In the past, politicians often promised to be “tough on crime” and those who didn’t or appeared to be “soft on crime” were attacked. As such there has been many new laws and sentencing requirements put into place that has caused the prison system and prison population to grow rapidly.
The current system struggles with a high recidivism rate, 76.6%, that is one of the highest in the world as well as an enormous inmate population, over two million, also one of the largest in the world. Faced with these problems many ask whether or not prisons centered only around punishment are the most effective way to deal with and prevent crime or if prisons should instead rehabilitate criminals and help prepare them for life on the outside. It is time to ask if we would be willing to be judged solely on our punishmenttreatment of our prisoners or if there is something that needs to be done.
The modern prison was first built in Philadelphia Pennsylvania during the American Industrial Revolution. However, experts disagree on which prison is truly the first modern prison with some saying it’s the Walnut Street Jail when it was expanded in 1790. Others say it’s the Eastern State Penitentiary which was constructed almost forty years afterwards in 1829. However despite these modern prisons being built relatively soon after the founding of the nation the federal prison system wasn’t established until 1891 and the Bureau of Prisons wasn’t created until 1930.
Since its creation the federal prison system has grown to hold around 180,000 inmates, according to the Bureau of Prisons itself, and is made up of 102 facilities.The state and local system is made up of several thousand facilities and held almost two million prisoners in 2016 (World Prison Brief, 2016). The total number of prisoners in 2016 was 2,121,600 according to the World Prison Brief. A dramatic increase from 1970 when there were 338,029 prisoners in the entire prison system (Justice Policy Institute, 2000).
In order to understand why this increase happened it is important to look at the policy changes as well as the public’s opinion during the late 1900s. According to one of a series of polls done by Gallup in the ‘90s a large majority, 83% in ‘93, of the public believed the criminal justice system needed to be tougher on crime, the majority would hold this belief until 2016 (McCarty, 2016).
Public opinion is important because politicians base their decisions, at least partly, on whether or not their constituents will be pleased by it in order to up their chances of re-election. As such a large majority of people believing that the criminal justice system needs to become tougher on crime leads to laws being passed that make that a reality. The laws that are often referenced when dealing with the increase in incarceration are those that are part of the War on Drugs.
The drug war was officially declared in 1971 by President Nixon but it reached its peak under President Reagan in the ‘80’s. Mandatory minimum sentences under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and “three strikes laws” were put into place for repeat offenders of violent or other crimes that fit the criteria of “serious”. These laws made it so people who were arrested would serve long sentences and repeat offenders could be put away for life. However, laws are just words without people to enforce them, which is why the Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA, was established in 1973 and police were given more funding and more discretion when making arrests.
Add in that presidential attitudes at the time favored punishment and not treatment and it makes sense that arrests would rise for nonviolent drug crimes from fifty thousand in 1980, to four hundred thousand in 1997 (The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). The laws put into place during the drug war made it so that many people who previously wouldn’t go to jail now would and long term prison population grew due to mandatory sentences. These laws also shifted the focus away from rehabilitating criminals to punishing them.
Prisons today have been crafted into places of punishment. They are specifically designed to limit freedom, make people regret committing crimes, and strike enough fear into people to prevent them from committing crimes. The prison system uses solitary confinement, the death penalty, lack of privacy, lack of freedom, and the separation from what is “normal” in order to strike fear into people who think about breaking the law.
This threat is not an empty one as those who break the law quickly find out. It follows the same train of thought that people everywhere follow throughout the day, punishment of bad behavior will motivate good behavior. Parents punish misbehaving children, school staff use punishment to keep students in line, and bosses use fear of punishment to keep employees from slacking off, and the list goes on. Everyday people use punishment as a way to motivate good behavior because it is logical. Therefore it is logical to say that people won’t commit crimes if they are punished severely enough in the prison system
Many people do still break the law and get incarcerated but, at the same time many people do not. With an overall success rate of 99% of the population not becoming incarcerated, prisons in their current form have been very effective. Furthermore, over the past twenty years, violent and property crime rates have gone down (Gramlich, 2019). This decrease happened alongside an increasing prison population. This points to a possible correlation between tough on crime policies and decreasing crime.
The prison system is very effective in punishing criminals using a number of different techniques. However this current technique has struggled to deal with the current recidivism rate. Despite the harshness of the prison system and its effectiveness in keeping the large majority people from offending in the first place it struggles to keep people from reoffending. Three fourths of those released reoffend within five years, a fairly large majority of people who have decided that prison isn’t the worst option (National Institute of Justice, 2014).
With such a large part of the population recidivating it speaks to a problem that is not being solved. Punishment as the focus of the prison system has proven to be ineffective and so there needs to be a shift towards rehabilitation. Rehabilitation programs allow for prisoners to increase their chances of not recidivating as well as improve their life after prison.
Rehabilitation programs are already offered in many jails and prisons. These programs are often seen in the form of halfway houses, in which prisoners at the end of their sentences can begin to transition back to normal life, or as classes inmates can take to further their education. These programs are there but in order to be more effective at reducing recidivism there needs to be more of them. America has a problem and the nature of prisons must shift from solely punishment to include more rehabilitation.
The worry that is often voiced when talking about introducing more rehabilitation programs will take the punishment out of prison and crime will rise. What this does not take into account is that rehabilitation programs do not fundamentally change the nature of prison, though some may argue that that magnitude of change is needed. People do not gain back the freedom they lost because they can take a class or get job training.
They are still in prison with a cell, guards, a uniform, and a tightly maintained schedule. A small change in part of their schedule does not take the punishment out of prison. The other worry is how much money these programs will cost. The total cost of the prison system was eighty billion dollars in 2010 (Kearney, Harris, Jácome, and Parker, 2014). The Vera Institute of Justice surveyed 40 states and found the average annual cost per inmate was $31,286 in 2010.
This adds up to mean that those states spent thirty-nine billion dollars (Henrichson and Delancey, 2012). It is important to note that the average cost includes expenses such as facility maintenance, that don’t fluctuate with the prison population, as well as expenses such as food and clothing, which do fluctuate with the prison population. It is the latter group of costs that prisons will save money on if recidivism, and crime in general, is reduced. Education programs cost between $1,400 and $1,744 per inmate per year which can save prisons up to $9,700 when prisoners do not recidivate (Bidwell, 2013).
Inmates who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to recidivate than those who don’t partake in a program and more inmates who took part in an educational or vocational program were employed after being released than those who didn’t (Bozick, Steele, Saunders, and Miles, 2013). Becoming employed is incredibly important after being released as it allows people to get back on their feet and attain a sense of normalcy. Jobs allow people to move away from other less legal sources of income such as theft or the drug trade as well as avoid any violent confrontations that may come from being involved in such things. By getting a job former inmates can improve their lives and get away from the circumstances that led them to crime.
In summation, the prison system has become ineffective. It is not ineffective in doling out punishment, it does that very well. If the correlation between tough on crime policies and decreasing crime proves to exist then the prison system has not been ineffective there. The prison system has been ineffective in helping people get back on their feet after prison. In order to better ensure people will not recidivate prisons need to introduce more programs that include job training and education and make these more accessible to inmates so they are able to take full advantage and get the most benefit out of the programs they participate in.