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Prisons In America Essay

Originally written for a competition by the Howard League for Penal Reform for essays on the topic of “Why Prisons Don’t Work”. You can read the winning (and excellent) essays here.

It is often said “prison works”. It is less often said what it means for a prison to “work”. Traditionally prisons have been argued to serve at least one of three functions: to punish the prisoner, to protect the public, and to rehabilitate the offender to prevent them committing another crime. However, on closer inspection, the reasons given seem to have secondary important to the need for society to feel like something is being done, that justice is being served, that law and order is being kept, with near-total disregard for those who find themselves shut out of society with no hope of redemption.

The first function given for prison, punishment, has always seemed to have the least force. Setting aside the dubious civility of a society which seeks revenge upon its citizenry, is spending £30,000 a year on keeping someone in prison when most prisoners really hurting them, or us? (1) Rehabilitation, a far more worthy aim, is chronically underfunded and ultimately useless in a system which is often referred to as a “university of crime”, where young impressionable offenders quickly pick up new skills from veteran prisoners and criminals and escalate their offences when they are released. Which leaves the protection of the public as the remaining reason, and the reason that prisons came about in the first place. Imprisoning those who threaten others seems slightly more justifiable. But this has to be balanced with the human rights of those convicted of crimes themselves – can we justify the imprisonment of such people? Does our society ultimately benefit from keeping people away under lock and key?

In 1993, the psychologist Terrie Moffett published a paper in the Psychological Review that argued that there were two fundamental types of prisoner – the adolescent-limited and the lifelong-persistent. The adolescent-limited are young, primarily men, who commit crime to support themselves, for fun, as part of a gang, or other reasons, who eventually mature, settle down and give up the lifestyle that was contributing to their criminality. The second type, lifelong-persistent, are people who commit crimes casually and often, moving through the criminal justice system in a perpetual cycle of crime-arrest-conviction-incarceration-release-crime and rarely, if ever, breaking out of that cycle. There are a variety of reasons both types end up in prison, including poor education, drug addiction, racism (young black men are twice as likely to go to prison than to university. (2)) and mental health difficulties, which are again rarely, if ever, given the attention they deserve.

Neither type of prisoner are prevented from committing more crime or given the chance to change their lives through serving prison sentences. The adolescent-limited, young and not really thinking about the consequences of their actions, find themselves permanently disadvantaged for the rest of their lives; upon release from prison, they struggle to find housing, meaningful employment and integration into society. It becomes easier to continue to commit more crimes to support themselves. Some will settle down and find councils and employers to give them a chance in life, but their potential, especially the potential of young black men, is severely compromised by serving a prison sentence, a physical block to their life’s progress as well as a permanent addition to their CV. Likewise, the lifelong-persistent are let down by our society. To deal with the reasons for people returning to prison over and over again, we require drug treatment programmes, mental health treatment, adult education, housing programmes, and ways of giving people pride and hope in themselves. But, when regarding that list, how much of it can be achieved effectively in a prison?

However, the rhetoric of the redtops of this country considers such proposals merely “pampering criminals”. Their attitude is largely that prison is for punishing people that society disapproves of. But if by prison “working”, we mean “reduces crime”, the only crime reduced is that which the imprisoned would have committed while doing time – as mentioned earlier, the recidivism rate for people who have been to prison more than twice is nearly 70%, so clearly prison does not “teach people a lesson”. But most advocates of prison do not care about that: they want to “see justice served” as opposed to actually seeing crime reduced and those who commit crime changing their lives. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were both locked up for ten years – one has now been rehabilitated and is trying to build a new life, one has gone back into prison for breaking his parole. The press wants to see them both imprisoned at great cost to the taxpayer regardless of their current circumstances, and with the broad support of their readers, it seems. With such calls, can we really say society cares about whether prison works or not?

Ultimately, the way we treat prisoners as a society reflect on our humanity. Dostoevsky famously wrote “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” However, it is also the mark of a functional, thriving society that its citizens feel safe and protected from those who would do them harm. People who kill, rape, steal, assault and engage in other anti-social behaviour are causing us as individuals and as a community harm and need to be dealt with. We need evidence-based solutions to tackle the problems that leads people to commit crime. But is prison really effective at this? Can prison deal with poverty, drug addiction, racism, patriarchy, social breakdown, senses of insecurity, resentment, or entitlement? Unlikely. Perhaps prisons “work” to give us a sense of satisfaction that something has been done – but do prisons “work” to create a safer, more secure society that protects its citizens, prevents crime, and rehabilitates those citizens who find themselves on the wrong side of the law? The evidence would suggest that as a society we have got our definition very wrong.

(1) Kanazawa, Satishi (24th August, 2008), “When crime rates go down, recidivism rates go up”, Psychology Today. Accessed 19th April, 2010.
(2) Smart Justice (2004), “The Racial Justice Gap: Race and the Prison Population Briefing”, pg 2.

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    Tagged as: argh, crime, evidence-based policy, penal reform, prison, society

    OCTOBER 8, 2015

    PROPORTIONALLY and in absolute numbers, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. But too few Americans think about the social costs of mass incarceration. Prisoners are hidden from public view, politically invisible and, in many cases, formally disenfranchised. In place of actual information about life in and after prison, Americans largely subsist on grotesque stereotypes about what prisons are like and how people find themselves inside. On the rare occasions when writing by American prisoners finds its way into print, it often presents a very narrow range of experience.

    Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America is therefore an important work. Its editorial team, headed by Doran Larson, a professor of English at Hamilton College, issued calls for submissions throughout America’s prison system. The essays address a wide range of topics about prison life written by the people who know it best. The contributors are black, white, and Latino, male and female, gay and straight, cis and trans. Some are former offenders who have been released, and some are on death row. The topics range from the difficulty of acquiring hearing aid batteries to political economy. The anthology’s title indicates that the incarcerated population, if viewed as a single community, would be the fourth-largest city in the United States. The sections of the book extend this conceit by describing the prison world as a city with its own history, norms, and dysfunctions. Of course, one book can no more describe all of the prison system than one book could exhaustively describe the life of a major city like Chicago or Philadelphia. But Fourth City comes much closer to a representative view of incarceration in America than most previous anthologies of prison writing.

    The view is not pleasant. Fourth City’s contributors tell us that life in American prison is ugly, violent, and monotonous. Above all, it is unfair: prisoners are dealt with capriciously, and the stigma and injury of imprisonment does not end with their eventual release. As contributor Kenneth E. Hartman notes of California, “In my state, an admittedly extreme example, on any given day about half the prison population are parole violators, a majority of whom have broken no law, but rather violated one of the vast web of confusing and devious tripwire rules they must navigate on the other side of the fences.” Some of the anthology’s most poignant essays describe the harm that incarceration does to families: Linda Field and Andrew R. Suhamit Jr. both write movingly about trying to maintain ties with their young children while serving long sentences.

    A lengthy discussion of all the bad things visited upon prisoners is to be expected in such writing. What is more striking is the ordinary life described in the essays: tales of prisoners’ difficulties obtaining postage stamps or vegan food, or staying sober; stories about fighting and avoiding fights, finding a boyfriend and breaking up, chatting with a guard about the presidential race, or swapping Seinfeld quotes with another inmate. In place of hard-boiled stereotypes, the authors of Fourth City present an everyday world filled with actual people. This description of the everyday is the main editorial goal of the book. The writing sometimes lacks polish — due in part to the fact the editors had little opportunity to correspond with the contributors, and therefore could not put the pieces through successive rounds of revision — but it always rings true.


    Fourth City is undoubtedly interesting, and an uninformed, unincarcerated public would likely benefit itself, and perhaps prisoners, by reading it. To the extent that it intervenes in an ongoing public debate about prisons, it does so by providing space for prisoners themselves to enter the discussion. In this sense, the book can be understood as a literary response to the growing scientific literature on mass incarceration, which includes popular books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, as well as scholarly work by sociologists like Bruce Western, Loïc Wacquant, and Devah Pager. In many ways, of course, prisoners have a better grasp of mass incarceration than even the most educated outsiders, and it’s for this reason, Larson suggests, that the social scientists should not have the last word: “[Fourth City’s] premise is that American prison writers […] remain our permanent vanguard in understanding whether the violence meted out by the law achieves order in the name, or at the expense, of justice.”

    However, the varied content of Fourth City indirectly points to reasons why social scientists have occupied such a large place in the discussion of prisons: the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States is complicated and dull, and the complicated and dull are a sociological specialty. (This is not at all an insult: thinking through things too overwhelming or boring for other people to bother with is an important scholarly service.) The massive growth in the prison population since the 1970s is the result of a variety of legal reforms, judicial rulings, and bureaucratic practices operating across many jurisdictions over a period of many decades. These changes include formal constraints on judges, such as mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws, but also an informal pattern of expansion in the discretion of prosecutors and their readiness to seek long sentences. These modern developments have also interacted, unpredictably, with older legal structures, such as the bail system, whose history stretches back nearly a thousand years. The resulting terrain is uneven: the incarceration rate in Louisiana, to take an extreme example, is 10 times that of Maine. The voices represented in Fourth City also point to substantial differences in the basic freedoms available to prisoners in different states. (It appears that many states prevented prisoners from submitting contributions, or perhaps did not even allow them to know that contributions were being solicited.)

    Though Nelson Rockefeller’s 1973 drug laws are often cited as an important catalyst for the current prison regime, no one person or set of policies is to blame. The historical record suggests that short-term political expedience, rather than any definite long-term goal, has often been the source of harsher laws. Though many people profit directly or indirectly from mass incarceration, prominent public figures have not defended it on principle in the way that politicians like George Wallace defended segregation. Nor is opposition to the current state of the prison system only a concern of the left: many conservatives object to mass incarceration on fiscal or religious grounds. Newt Gingrich, for instance, was a vocal supporter of California’s Proposition 47, which instituted less severe penalties for nonviolent property and drug crimes, and in the last month several Republican presidential candidates have voiced opposition to the high rates of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. In short, the United States, unlike the totalitarian countries to which it is sometimes compared, has imprisoned millions without any clearly defined ideology or social goal.

    Not everyone would agree with the above assessment. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent, much-discussed Atlantic article “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” connects the phenomenon to the legacy of centuries of racial injustice and discrimination in America. Many, including Coates and Alexander, argue that racism has been the primary rationale as well as the historical cause for mass incarceration, and in important respects this is undoubtedly true. African-American men are incarcerated at a rate more than six times higher than that of white men, a point that is deservedly central to critiques of mass incarceration. Economic inequality, much of it a byproduct of past and present racial injustice, plays a decisive role in determining who winds up in prison; so, too, does the conduct and misconduct of local police departments. Still, unlike Jim Crow, racial supremacism has not been an overt rationale for increased imprisonment, and in the past fifty years the American prison population has swelled across all racial and ethnic groups. Critics like Alexander and Coates argue that, from a moral point of view, the overt justification scarcely matters: the effects fall disproportionately upon African Americans, thus making mass incarceration, de facto if not de jure, an example of state-sanctioned racism. Morally, I wholly agree. However, the difference does matter when it comes to the practical political possibilities of dismantling mass incarceration. The legal architecture of Jim Crow was constructed quickly and purposefully, and enjoyed systematic Constitutional protection; massive social resistance and fundamental changes in US law were required to dismantle it. Mass incarceration, by contrast, is the product of a host of customs old and new, including many informal practices with little or no foundation or protection in law. On the one hand, this makes it difficult to argue that the American prison system acts as a monolithic institutional oppressor of black people, and to criticize it accordingly. But, on the other, the legal fragility of many of the bases of mass incarceration may also make it possible to knock down the prisons brick by brick.

    In the absence of a coherent ideological opponent or an orderly set of historical causes, describing the phenomenon of mass incarceration requires organizing a welter of detail. To fully grasp the enormity of the prison system and begin to attack it, we need social science. The social consequences of imprisonment are so extensive that they seem to demand statistical rather than personal description. But where the concrete political end of decreasing the prison population is concerned, impersonal measures of injury and principled arguments may be less valuable than direct testimony and the empathy it stirs. Fourth City, by allowing prisoners to express their own ordinary humanity, offers a potent weapon in this fight. To quote Kenneth E. Hartman, currently serving life without parole in California, once more: “The trouble with prison is, indeed, prison itself […]. The idea that by humiliating and brutalizing damaged people some possible good could result is simply absurd […]. It has never worked. It is not working now. It will never work.”


    Ben Merriman is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago.