The US prison system is exacting an increasingly heavy toll, both financial and human. Surging numbers of prisons hold more than 2 million inmates, giving the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Over the past few decades, the dominant criminal justice philosophy dropped rehabilitation in favor of sequestration and retribution. Opportunities for education, job training and drug treatment have fallen out of fashion. "Three strikes" and minimum sentencing laws have led to excessive punishments for millions of nonviolent offenders, especially in the misguided "war on drugs."
Any assessment of the US prison system is incomplete without considering the prison-industrial complex, a network of private corporations with a direct interest in increasing the number of prisoners. Dovetailing with these interests are politicians exploiting tough-on-crime rhetoric that plays well at election time. The reality is that punitive incarceration policies are a relatively ineffective means of reducing crime, especially drug use.
Fortunately, many states are starting to recognize the system's failure and experiment with rehabilitative programs such as job training and drug treatment. These programs are yielding impressive results in the form of reduced recidivism rates and taxpayer costs. But alternative solutions are in constant jeopardy because of the prevailing, federally driven ideology.
Prison Reform Talking Points
1. The conditions of prisons are inhumane.
In many prisons, inmates are victims of physical abuse and excessive disciplinary action. Overcrowding and double-bunking are widespread. At the same time, many "supermax" prisons subject inmates to prolonged isolation in tiny cells, which frequently fosters mental illness. Prisoners also tend to have inadequate access to physical and mental healthcare.
2. Prisons are "crime factories."
Instead of curbing criminal tendencies, prisons encourage them. Violent and aggressive behavior is standard and even rewarded. It's clear that time served in such conditions regularly creates violent criminals from nonviolent ones.
3. Recidivism rates are exceedingly high.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than two-thirds of released prisoners are re-arrested within three years. These figures underline the ineffectiveness of prison as a deterrent and a reformer. They also lead to a related criticism of prison trends: Increasingly, people are re-arrested on technical parole violations, such as missing an appointment with a parole officer, and returned to the system more quickly than in the past.
4. Prisons are expensive.
According to CBS News, taxpayers are paying an estimated $40 billion a year for prisons. Feeding and caring for an inmate costs about $20,000 a year on average, and construction costs are about $100,000 per cell. The demand to build more prisons has often siphoned funds from the few existing treatment and education programs, leading to a vicious circle in which more prisons are needed because, partly due to the lack of these programs, more prisoners continue to come back.
5. Most of the growth in prison population has been for nonviolent offenders, especially those convicted on drug charges.
Because of mandatory sentencing laws, over half of today's inmates are incarcerated on drug charges, despite evidence that treatment programs are much more effective at preventing future drug offenses.
6. The combined effects of disenfranchisement laws, inmate population trends and economic realities perpetuate a racial divide in society.
Prisoners are disproportionately from minority communities. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on current rates of incarceration an estimated 32 percent of black males will enter prison during their lifetime, compared with 17 percent of Hispanic males and 5.9 percent of white males. Once released, many prisoners lack job skills and face employer suspicion. In most states convicted felons are not allowed to vote from prison; in twelve states, felons are disenfranchised for life. These factors contribute to widespread unemployment in minority communities as well as disproportionately meager electoral representation.
7. Under draconian laws, people can end up in jail for life for nonviolent crimes.
Because of the ascendancy of "three strikes" laws, for example in California, it is increasingly common for people to receive life sentences for offenses such as drug possession and welfare fraud.
8. Most prisoners will be released into society, and are not prepared by prisons to participate productively.
The culture of parole has changed dramatically over the past generation. Now there is much less individualized consideration of how well prepared an inmate is to leave prison. Less help is provided to facilitate that preparation, and fewer parole officers are available to ease the transition back into the community. Such trends are especially dangerous in light of the mental illness and violent tendencies that result from prison conditions.