One of the greatest novelists of the 19th century, Fyodor Dostoevsky, famously said that societies can be judged by the way prison populations are treated. This assertion begins to make sense when considering the prison systems of countries such as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, where the humane treatment of inmates is often lauded by United Nations agencies and religious organizations. It so happens that these nations often make headlines when they top the lists of the happiest, most prosperous, and most equal countries in the world.
If we are to place the United States in the context of the aforementioned statement by Dostoevsky, would it be safe to say that American society is as broken as its prison system? We currently have approximately 2.2 million people incarcerated for a variety of offenses that spans the realm of criminal activity. This means that we have about 707 adults out of every 100,000 locked up. Compare this to other countries we generally think of as less free, like China (with 124 per 100,000) and Russia (with 470 per 100,000), it is clear that the United States has a serious problem.
The Prison-Industrial Complex
When the late Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his farewell Presidential address in 1961, he warned Americans about the military-industrial complex, a term that refers to the unspoken alliance between arms manufacturers and the armed services. In 1987, American activist Angela Davis paralleled this warning by talking about the prison-industrial complex. The prison-industrial complex includes law enforcement agencies and court systems, and it generates billions of dollars each year, giving jobs to hundreds of thousands of people.
Even though the prison-industrial complex generates a lot of money, many correctional institutions suffer from dangerous conditions. Inmates may be abused by other prisoners or by the guards themselves. Even those who are not abused directly may have medical conditions neglected by authorities, causing them to suffer. This is an unacceptable situation that should be monitored and audited by independent human rights organizations.
Punishment Versus Rehabilitation
The time served by inmates for their convictions should be the only punishment they serve. Law enforcement officials such as the disgraced Joe Arpaio, the former Sheriff of Maricopa County, believe in shaming and punishing inmates beyond the time they serve. But not only do we need to avoid shaming and punishing inmates, we need to provide a way for them to make a new life after they are released. If they are thrust back into the same situation they were in before, it is only a matter of time before they end up back in prison. In fact, a 2002 survey of 275,000 inmates released in 1994 found that 67.5% of them were rearrested within three years and 51.8% of them were in prison at that point. That is a ridiculously high percentage rate. Inmates need to have access to education and programs that provide them with the skills to become functioning and contributing members of society. If we don’t, we just have a revolving-door prison system that only benefits those who make money.
In the end, there are no easy solutions to the many problems presented by the broken prison system. Unless American society accepts that the Eisenhower warning has become a sad reality, the problem will continue.
Author: Jennifer Montgomery