The US Prison System: The perpetual incarceration machine

The concept of ‘mass incarceration’ is as misunderstood and as systematically avoided as one might expect. No one wants to talk about prison or what happens behind the wall unless it’s part of a Hollywood movie. Even fewer want to discuss what happens after prison since it’s difficult for people to look beyond their gut reaction to where they might be able to see the forest for the trees. There are many people out there who believe that because of the choices those of us who committed crimes made; we now deserve whatever we get. And while I understand that viewpoint; I do not agree with it.

It is this stigma that is embraced by an entire society that views prison as punishment and not rehabilitation thus creating a prison system that is a ‘perpetual incarceration machine’ designed to serve as a merry-go-round that most inmates can’t seem to get off of.

Once you are a part of the system; it does everything it can to keep you….to deliver a life sentence for each and every criminal trespass. You will serve your time, and then you will continue to accept the ongoing punishments as part and parcel of that life sentence.

And it makes perfect sense when you recognize the economics behind the prison industry. The US Prison system is an $80 billion dollar a year industry. With that much money flowing through the prison system it is obvious that we must continue to incarcerate people, sentence them excessively and withhold rehabilitation opportunities in order to keep the flow of inmates rising to support all those employed and relying upon the system for their livelihood.

Over the past 30 years the United States has seen crime rates fall to historic lows. The US News reported that ‘Violent crime is about 0.7 percent lower than five years ago, and 16.5 percent lower than a decade ago. The violent crime rate – nearly 373 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants in the U.S. – is almost half the 20-year high reached in 1996’, yet our country incarcerates 500 times the number of people it did previously with roughly 2.2 million people locked up in prison or jail and 7 million people under some sort of correctional control such as parole and probation.  The U.S. rate of incarceration, with nearly 1 out of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is 5 to 10 times higher than the rates in Western Europe and other democracies.

Given these dramatic positive changes in crime rates, one would think that as a nation we could begin to see a light at the end of this expensive tunnel. Logic would dictate that saving taxpayers billions of dollars spent on incarceration and supervision would be a popular concept when combined with falling crime rates, so what is preventing a commensurate decrease in incarceration rates?

One certain factor is lack of any meaningful rehabilitation for offenders in our current system. The subject of rehabilitation after prison isn’t some abstract, easily judged and dismissed concept. A crime not only destroys the life those previously had but because of the way our system is set up and run, it has a very good chance of destroying any possibilities for a thriving future.

As someone who has been to prison, I can tell you firsthand about the rehabilitation opportunities available. There are none.

In the prison I served time in they offered an HVAC class and a personal trainer certification. These classes were offered twice a year and held around 20 inmates. There was also a baking certification for bulk pastry baking for about 40 women. The inmate population was 1100.

Let’s do the math on this. 3 programs for a total of 80 women x twice a year = 160 “opportunities”. 1100 women in the facility. That would mean there are rehabilitation opportunities available for roughly 6.8% of the inmate population.

I did my time in a medium security Federal Correctional Facility and most of the women there had sentences of 5-15 years. That is a long time to spend with no chance to better yourself and not acquiring any skills to help you acclimate to society once you are released.

Since it costs approx. $31,000 per year to house a non-violent prisoner wouldn’t that money be better spent rehabilitating them rather than just housing them like cattle?

Research has found that a full 39 percent of prisoners (approx.. 600,000 people) behind bars do not need to be there for a public safety reason. ‘Our research shows that prisons are housing too many people who can be managed safely and held accountable in the community at far lower cost,’ said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project.

As a mitigation tactic to the problem of expensive incarceration for these people, community supervision and pre-release center housing seems sensible, however, for that to be a successful solution improvement must be made to that system foundationally. It is a senseless undertaking to attempt to utilize it in its current Sisyphean state which results in violations that accounted for more than 35% of all prison admissions and over 62,000 inmates. Of these admissions, only one-third were returned for a new conviction; the rest were returned for a technical violation, such as missing a meeting with the parole officer.

Inmates struggle with limited access to housing, work, some social programs, societal acceptance on any level, even volunteer work. We are loved by our family (if we are lucky) and tolerated at best by the communities we are re-introduced to. It is an established fact that employment, or lack thereof, has a significant effect on recidivism and a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent.

By reducing our far reaching felony laws (There are so many vague, overly broad federal laws criminalizing mundane activities that it’s impossible for anyone to be 100% compliant), changing sentencing policies such as Truth In Sentencing and Three Strikes laws, creating protections for inmates trying to re-integrate into society such as non-discriminatory housing policies and less restriction (ie probation officer discretion) on what type of jobs are acceptable to maintain compliance, we could see significant improvement in a multitude of related areas…

To change this destructive dynamic, we can start by changing our mindset and viewing incarceration as rehabilitative rather than punitive. By actually offering programs that would benefit inmates and help them see themselves and their futures as valuable. We can reduce the length of sentences by using alternative sentencing methodology such as is done in NYC for non-violent offenders. Particularly with non-violent crimes where there are fines or restitution to be paid, incarcerating the offender wastes years of potential income and only serves to prolong those payments. Creating an alternative whereby the offender is in the community working, paying taxes and able to pay such fines and restitution benefits not only the victims & government, but the community as a whole.

An entire conversation in itself is the potential for change in how we deal with drug-related offenses and addiction in this country. Globally, we are seeing a shift in attitudes about drug use and possession as a health crisis rather than a criminal crisis. Addicts don’t have to be criminals, we make them criminals by criminalizing acts that should instead result in immediate treatment.

Portugal has seen incredible change as they shifted their societal views and reactions to drug use. On July 1st, 2001, Portugal decriminalized every imaginable drug, from marijuana, to cocaine, to heroin. Please note that decriminalization and legalization are not the same thing. Rather than an arrest and incarceration, citizens caught using or possessing are processed through a special court involving legal experts, psychologists and social workers. Addiction and substance use is considered a public health problem rather than a justice department problem and offenders are evaluated and further action and immediate treatment are decided on a case by case basis. The success of this approach is measurable and has silenced critics but what it ought to do is force an intelligent and determined society like us to reconsider our blanket approach to prosecution and sentencing.

Ultimately, it is easy to see that changes could be made that would dramatically decrease spending on prosecution, incarceration, and supervision, prevent the inevitable breakdown of family and community that incarceration creates, and reduce recidivism… the question is do we have the courage to do it.

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About Us

The Prison Advocate was founded by former Manhattan Madam, Kristin Davis, to combat the injustices that occur behind bars. If you or someone you know has experienced abuse in prison, we want to hear from you.

We are also a consulting firm designed to help you safely navigate the judicial and prison system and can potentially help you reduce your prison term.


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