politics, social justice

Let’s Not Go There: U.S. Prisons

Shockingly, I’m sure, to those of you who know me, I’m a law-abiding citizen. And as such, I haven’t had much occasion to think about the U.S. Penal System. After all, prison is where bad people go to get punished, right? I’m not bad, and they are, right? So they obviously deserve it. Right?

Just a (super, incredibly, almost lightning-fast) overview of some history here. Prison as punishment (rather than as a place to hold people until they can be tried) became common in the U.S. in the early 1800s. Reformers thought earlier criminal punishments like public whippings, the stocks, and public execution to be “barbaric,” and prison to be a modern alternative. Solitary confinement, specifically, was regarded as a punishment geared toward reform: it was thought to turn one’s thoughts toward oneself and toward heaven, and to lead to a spiritual re-awakening. The perspective that imprisonment is the best treatment for law-breakers has been prevalent (with exceptions) for several hundred years.

The problem is, this isn’t necessarily true. The United States prison system has the most inmates of any country in the history of the world. Followed by Russia and Rwanda. This is despite that fact that according to the U.S. census, crime rates are at a historic low. As of 2011 there were 6.98 million offenders “in the system”–about 1 in 34 adults in the country. Abut half of these were residents of a state or local prison or local jail–that’s 937 out of every 100,000 people in the United States.

This is incredibly expensive. It costs around $78 a day to keep one prisoner in prison. multiply that by around 3 million people, and you’re talking about a significant chunk of change. For those of you too lazy to do the math: 3 million x $78 is $234 million a day, times 365 = we’re talking about 80 billion dollars per year. Many prisoners work to offset these costs, but the government picks up the rest of the tab. (did I mention most prisons are privatized? Go figure.)

What’s crazy is that despite the government’s obvious financial investment in the idea that prison is the right way to respond to crime, it’s actually incredibly ineffective. U.S. prisoners have a very high rate of recidivism: a 2002 study found that 67.5% of released prisoners were rearrested within 3 years, with 51.8% of them returning to prison.

If you looked at the link I provided you might have noticed that the study found no indication that being in prison for a long time caused a higher rate of recidivism. But in my opinion, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that prisons are also not doing anything to help rehabilitate prisoners. Rather than treating prisoners like people with problems that need to be addressed, prisoners are treated as though they are the problem, and are segregated from society. It’s no coincidence that blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionately high percentage of inmates–as much as 60%, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University Lisa Guenther wrote a book called The Living Death of Solitary Confinementwhich draws from her experiences working with inmates on death row to explore what being in solitary confinement says about being a human being. She writes that being in solitary confinement can lead to symptoms like, “intense anxiety, paranoia, depression, memory loss, hallucinations and other perceptual distortions. Psychiatrists call this cluster of symptoms SHU syndrome, named after the Security Housing Units of many supermax prisons. Prisoners have more direct ways of naming their experience.  They call it “living death,” the “gray box,” or “living in a black hole.”’

Guenther uses the experience she has leading a discussion group with inmates to explore what it means to be a human being, and what solitary confinement threatens to take away from prisoners doomed to spend months and years completely alone–she says, “When we isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement, we deprive them of both the support of others, which is crucial for a coherent experience of the world, and also the critical challenge that others pose to our own interpretation of the world.” She exhorts the criminal justice system to bring prisoners in solitude back into the world.

This is all very interesting, and incredibly intense. But what I’m even more interested in is what Guenther does outside of academia. She is a part of a group called Reach Coalition, which states in their mission, “our purpose is to develop a coalition comprised of death row prisoners and volunteers who seek to educate themselves and the public about crime, punishment, and responsibility.” What strikes me about this is that the phrasing of the statement puts the prisoners and the volunteers on the same footing. They are all educating themselves. With the prisoners in her death row discussion group, Guenther discusses existentialism, and created an anthology of poetry, essays, and fiction by these inmates. They make artwork exploring the experience of being in prison, and when I had the opportunity to meet Guenther, she gave me two pre-addressed postcards made by inmates (complete with artwork) so that I could write a message and send them back.

To me, this is amazing. And in some ways, upsetting. If Ms. Guenther can find ways to create meaningful interactions with prisoners on death row, why isn’t that happening in all prisons? If the criminal justice system doesn’t function as a way of rehabilitating prisoners, why doesn’t it change?

I wish I had an answer for this. Unfortunately I don’t. Maybe you do?


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