Our Prisons Are Us


Baltimore City Jail (William Hotz/Baltimore Sun)

Peter Van Buren.  Introduction by b. traven.

After decades of politicians enacting repressive and vindictive imprisonment policies like “three strikes” and maximum incarceration for minor drug usage, America has become a nation that proclaims its love of freedom while imprisoning more of its people than many of the most freedom-hating regimes in the world.

Peter Van Buren at wemeantwell.com explores this tragedy that, like our perpetual wars, has created more criminality than civility.  Indeed, for what America wastes on the prison-industrial complex as well as the military-industrial complex, we could rebuild and remake all of our schools while giving every qualified adult a college education.

Our so-called justice system, to include the courts as well as the prisons, is racist (see Peter’s article below for race-based statistics). Our nation’s record of vindictive (rather than rehabilitative) incarceration is shameful. Our politicians may make noises about “justice reform,” but like their noises about war defunding, it’s all bark and no bite.

Let’s put prison reform with war defunding at the top of our demands.  A nation that wages war constantly while imprisoning its fellow citizens is not a democracy — it’s a travesty.  b. traven

Our Prisons Are Us, by Peter Van Buren

A society’s prison system mirrors the society. What does America’s say about America?

Some numbers: With only five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has more than 20 percent of the world’s prison population. America has the largest actual prison head count in the world and the second-highest per-capita incarceration rate (first place is held via a statistical oddity by the tiny Seychelles island nation.) In the U.S., from 1978 to 2014, the prison population rose 408 percent, to the point where the nation is closing in on a full one percent of the entire population being in prison proper. If you include all forms of correctional control –prison, jail, parole and probation — about three percent of Americans are included. The numbers are currently as high as they have ever been in history.

The world’s self-proclaimed freest society is anything but.

It actually gets worse when one looks at the statistics broken down by race. Black men are six times more likely than white men to be in prison. Hispanic men are 2.4 times more likely than whites to be locked up.

And all this comes at a cost: the American prison system runs an estimated $74 billion a year, more than the GDP of 133 nations. A report by the organization The Price of Prisons states that the average cost of incarcerating one inmate $31,307 per year, though in states like Connecticut, Washington state, New York, it’s anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000. That’s a teacher’s salary, or a nurse’s.

Those are the costs. But what does America get for its money?

Not much. Despite locking up more people than any other place on earth, American society remains one of the most violent; there is almost no comparison outside of actual war zones. About the same number of people are killed by guns alone in Miami as in Colombia. L.A. has more gun deaths than the Philippines, Phoenix more than Mexico.

If America’s prison population, 2.2 million people, was a city, it would be the nation’s fourth largest, behind only New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. But it would clearly be America’s most violent city, a place where residents suffer routine cruelty at rates unlike anywhere else in the country, where they are raped and beaten by both their neighbors and by the officials paid to keep them safe. Some four percent of inmates report sexual assault, while 16 percent say they are physically assaulted. It is plausible to assume unreported incidents keep the numbers low. Like our society, our prisons are terribly violent places.

The U.S. remains also the only Western nation to impose the death penalty. World leaders in sentencing people to death alongside the United States include China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and many African nations. Awkward company given the image Americans otherwise hold of themselves.

Yet at the same time, sending people to prison in America does not stop them from committing new crimes once released. Again, the statistics are appalling. One study found that within three years of release, about two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested. Within five years of release, about three-quarters of released prisoners were rearrested.

America has clearly chosen to use its prisons for punishment, not rehabilitation, despite the former most obviously not working. What about elsewhere?

Norway is one of many examples of simply the opposite of the United States. Its incarceration rate is just 75 per 100,000 people, compared to 707 people for every 100,000 people in the U.S. It has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20 percent. Its prisons are clean, more like dorms than medieval facilities, and seek to prepare inmates for life on the outside with vocational programs. Inmates enter as criminals and emerge as people.

In Japan, the prison population is relatively small, as crime throughout the nation is low. Conditions in prison are harsh, in a military-style way, but there is no danger to prisoners and near-zero inmate-on-inmate violence. The system is clear on its goals: in almost mimicry of Buddhist tradition, prisoners are subjected to austere conditions. The goal is for them to see they have, through crime, been selfish, placing their needs above society’s. They must repent, and then serve their term as penance. Recidivism is around 40 percent, mostly among hard-core yakuza gang members. Most other inmates enter as criminals and emerge as people.

We know — by statistics, by the fear we have inside our urban neighborhoods — that in America inmates enter as criminals and emerge as criminals, often beaten and raped in between. Our society remains the most violent among industrialized nations. Our prison populations reflect the sad racism that still plagues our nation. America must face itself and know that our prisons are us, and cannot be made like Norway’s or Japan’s.

We can’t fix our prison system until we fix us.

– See more at: http://wemeantwell.com/#sthash.PbDyrxzl.dpuf

12 thoughts on “Our Prisons Are Us

  1. “A society’s prison system mirrors the society.” Except that, as demonstrated by the statistics, that is NOT SO here. Members of racial minorities vastly outweigh their presence in the larger society by their presence within the walls. And how can it be otherwise when we contemplate the presumed guilt of young black men walking the streets of our cities? How else to explain the mindset of a cop in Chicago who pumps 16 rounds into a young man who, based on the video evidence, had presented no threat to the multiple LEOs (Law Enforcement Officers) on the scene? It’s not necessary to bring up the other recent notorious examples of this situation, as the situation isn’t new. It’s just the availability of video, usually taken by citizens, that has made these incidents more glaringly evident. This is a huge societal issue, the legacy of slavery, of institutional racism. In this context we could also talk about conditions on “Indian reservations” and the substance abuse and crime rampant there. But I shall restrain myself in order to keep my comments to sub-book-length. The political will to truly deal with these problems is what’s lacking in the USA, just as with the problem of human-generated climate chaos. An utter, hideous failure of our “leaders.” And surely we have failed, for despite the periodic rise of “throw all the bums out [of office]” rhetoric, we just don’t do it, hmmm?

    • Greg: Peter’s point about a prison system that mirrors our society is accurate in the sense that it reflects systemic racism and widespread bigotry.

    • All excellent points. I worked in the Georgia Prison System from 1972 to 1981, beginning as a Social Worker with the job of evaluating the free-world plans and situations for potential parolees, and ending as an Asst. Supt/Deputy Warden of a community-based treatment/work-release facility for female inmates. In between, I served as Coordinator of Volunteer Services for the Metro-Atlanta Region, and as a Counselor in a highly intense community based treatment facility for male drug offenders, which served as preparation for societal re-entry prior to parole or release. Jimmy Carter was Governor at the time, and was very open to the consideration of new ideas for rehab and treatment. We had a large population, even then, with disproportionately high numbers of blacks. Hispanics were almost non-existent because there were very few in the state at that time. The influx of immigrants was beginning, but didn’t become really large until a few years later. Our recidivism statistics were also very high.
      I made the decision to leave the system, not because I DIDN’T love my work, and have strong commitment to it, but because I DID. It was nothing for me to put in 60 to 70 hours while obligated for 40, especially in the last two positions with community residential inmate populations. The population is extremely needy, and are, generally, quite motivated to grow and make changes. And, when you relate to them with respect and true intent to offer assistance, while keeping your expectations of them high, but within reason, they soak it up like a sponge. Most of them have very low self-esteem, have never been made to feel loved by parents or care-givers, and have been pretty beaten down by life. They are slow to trust, but persistence and consistence pay off. I will never forget the experience, and the people who were my clients.
      So, I left because I wanted to start a family, and I was pushing 33 years old. I needed to be in a job that I could hold the hours down to something more reasonable, if I wanted to be a Mama.
      However, I will always feel strongly about the offenders and the system. When I first learned of the privatization of the system, I was outraged! Nothing could possibly be more at odds with successful rehabilitation than to have a prison run by management that profits from keeping all the beds full all the time. And, the same is true of community supervision. There is no attempt at counseling or intervention, just have the probationer or parolee report, pay their fees, and take care of the list of things they are required to complete. I doubt that they even can put a name with a face, unless there is a picture in the file. And, who would recommend parole for an inmate, if it leaves a bed empty, anyway??? Did no one ever stop to consider how totally stupid the whole setup would become??

  2. Good article but I would say that criminals are still people rather than some variety of not-quite-human-creature as (probably unintentionally) implied here.

  3. A few observations:

    1) Prisons should not be private, for-profit, institutions. Linking profit to incarceration rates is a surefire recipe for prison expansion.

    2) Prisons should be used as sparingly as possible for non-violent offenses.

    3) Mandatory long-term sentences should be eliminated. Each case is unique.

    4) The death sentence must be eliminated.

    5) Prison must provide opportunities for reform and rehabilitation. It’s not simply about locking away the thugs and throwing away the key.

    • ” We can’t fix our prison system until we fix us.” (W.J. Astore)
      You are right there. Our politicians are always ready to exploit American’s thoughtless desire for a ‘quick fix’ to complicated problems for their own reelection purposes. Your four points above are right on but too complex for the ‘quick fix’ citizenry to absorb.

      • Once upon a time the US penal system DID offer at least the pretense that it was aiming for rehabilitation. I’m not exactly sure when this approach was “officially” abandoned, but it may have been with the advent of the Rockefeller mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The explosion of the incarcerated population led to funds for teachers/substance abuse counselors being shifted to hiring more prison guards. My last job prior to retiring was working with inmates approaching their release dates, most of whom were sentenced on drugs-related charges. And yes, the recidivism rate is alarmingly high. And the rural area where I live is in the midst of a plague of heroin use. Low self-esteem is a factor in leading people to flirt with death every time they shoot up. There is a self-reinforcing vicious circle at work: people abuse themselves via drugs; they are abused while incarcerated; they eventually return to the streets being EXPECTED to succumb to their former lifestyle, with only a matter of time until they return to prison. This country’s approach to its domestic problems is no less a colossal failure than its foreign policy. Republicans obviously have no solutions to offer (their grandiose rhetoric and “promises” aside), and neither do the Democrats. “The darkest hour [may be] just before dawn” but I’m afraid dawn is still a long, long way over the horizon.

      • I know a professor who worked with prisoners in NY State. The state cut funding for his program. He talked to a politician who basically said, “I know education for prisoners is good — it gives them hope and reduces recidivism. But I can’t sell it to people — I can’t win votes by defending state-funded education for prisoners.”

        And there you have it …

  4. Pingback: Our Prisons Are Us | cuprodotme

  5. b.traven:

    This is a nice post and I am pretty sure you can find more like it expressing similar thought. I wrote pretty much the same in 2010 and even then you could find earlier articles on the topic by others as well. This, the same as what I wrote, is addressing symptoms. There is a ground swell for doing something today. We just have to focus it on the right issues.

    My opinion is we are too late in the process and we need to examine our justice system way before we even get to prison. Public Defender Departments are under staffed and funded. The system is meant to process prisoners in and out of the court at the fastest rate possible utilizing plea-bargaining. If you choose to fight back, you can expect a harsher sentence as you are making them work. I do not believe the coalition of the Koch Brothers, CAP, and other organizations is the way to go. Yes, getting prisoners out of prison is important and keeping them longer does not decease recidivism. I see this effort as more of the Koch Brothers transferring the burden of “mens rea” to that of the prosecutor rather than maintaining it where it is now (in some laws) with the defendants (especially white collar). The lessening of minimum sentencing is good; but, it does not address what I have pointed out early in this paragraph. “Everyone” should have sound and capable legal representation regardless of wealth. It will take quite a philosophical change on the part of legislators and citizens to buy into this

    The mentality and psychology of prison and inmates is not something readily known unless you have been there incarcerated. You get an idea of it if you have a relation in prison and make the monthly or bi-weekly visitation trips. It is hard to keep your month shut when faced with ignorance. One prison psychiatrist Doctor James Gilligan wrote “Violence: Reflections On A National Epidemic” which gives a pretty clear picture of what violent prisoners are thinking and how they got to where they are today. For example:

    “it is important to remember that in discussing the relative vulnerability to shame and violence that is suffered by blacks in this country, we are talking about a social phenomena, namely caste, and not a biological phenomenon, namely race.” page 208, Chapter 8: The Deadliest Form of Violence is Poverty.

    John Adams also made comment about poverty, being poor, and the impact upon people. This book is a short and easy read at 267 pages and is foot noted extensively. My book is well marked up. I apologize for taking up your site with my words. I ran across your blog while doing research on some of the nonsensical remarks I was getting from commenters on other blogs where I was featured.

    Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s