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What's Wrong With Prisons?
America's reliance on incarceration and what you can do about it

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       During the last twenty years, the United States prison system has fallen into a cruel era of social vengeance, unlike any other in our nation's history. While crime rates rose and fell, our rate of incarceration skyrocketed at unprecedented rates.  We now imprison our citizens at 6-10 times the rate of most other industrialized countries. In fact, we have the world’s highest rate of imprisonment.

Photo of man under arrest by a police

Although criminals should be taken off the streets, incarceration isn't always an effective way to prevent crimes

Does it control crime?
       Although many supporters of the rising incarceration rate will tell you imprisonment is necessary to control crime, the reality is that the relationship between incarceration and crime remains inconsistent. States that have greatly increased their incarceration rates have not had a larger drop in crime rates than states that have not. Further, while incarceration increased continuously from 1985-1995, crime rates rose from 1985 to 1991 and then declined from 1991 to 1995.

       Increasing incarceration rates may in fact work adversely against crime. Prisoners face horrible conditions such as inadequate medical care, abuse by guards, rodent infestation and lack of rehabilitation programs. They are often raped and condoms are not available, thus spreading AIDS. These conditions, coupled with an environment of criminal peers, often make prisoners more violent than when they went in.

Back on the street
       Then, after receiving little treatment or guidance within prison, ex-cons are released to the street with only a few dollars in their pockets. These individuals have not only lost precious time to build a career, family and friends but also face the stigma of being ex-cons. As a result, it is not surprising that more than 60% of people released from prison commit a crime after being released.

       Further, a large majority of prisoners are not the "violent predators" we are conditioned to believe. More than 70% of prisoners are locked up for non-violent crimes, most for drug crimes or low level property crimes. While many prisoners only need drug or alcohol counseling or help finding jobs, our government opts to flex its muscles by throwing these people in prison. Rehabilitation programs cost far less - and are more effective - than prison.

Photo of a man smoking in jail

Prison usually has a long-term affect on a person and may hinder them of leading a normal lifestyle even if they've changed in positive ways.

     Most prisoners' living environments lead to few options in life. The majority come from poverty-stricken neighborhoods that suffer from inadequate education, unemployment, broken families, social isolation and other factors that make criminal activity more likely. Unfortunately, prison does absolutely nothing to address these “root” causes of crime.

       Largely a result of the “War on Drugs,” America's incarceration policies have disproportionately impacted minorities, particularly African Americans. While African Americans constitute only 13% of drug users, they represent 74% of those sentenced to prison for drug possession. The horrifying result has been that one in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is under some form of criminal justice control.

Social Costs
       The economics of the situation are also quite frightening. The cost of incarceration in the year 2000 was more than $40 billion. Sending someone to prison for a year costs more than sending a person to Harvard for a year, more than $35,000. Speaking of education, while prison spending increased 571.4% over the last 20 years, education spending rose only 33.4%, forcing many to question our priorities.

Effective crime prevention
       There are many crime prevention alternatives that are more efficient, humane, fair and effective than imprisonment. Such alternatives include counseling, drug rehabilitation, education, job training and victim restitution. Because our government has chosen incarceration as its foremost crime prevention strategy, most of these programs are being implemented only on the community level.

       One such program is the Community Justice Project. The CJP works with courts to provide community service, education and employment opportunities for offenders, parolees and individuals on probation. CJP has not only shown a significant decrease in the recidivism rate of its participants, but has also used these offenders to give back to the community. Photo of a prison

Prisons are more geared towards punishing people instead of rehabilitating them

       Another organization, the Victim Offender Mediation Association, is just one of many community groups working toward implementing the ideals of restorative justice. Unlike incarceration, restorative justice attempts to repair the harm caused by the crime and reintegrate the offender back into society. Restorative justice has had great success in reducing recidivism rates of property offenders in Australia and continues to gain support worldwide. 

What you can do
       Many organizations work for compassionate and efficient crime prevention. There are many things that you can do to help them, from lobbying for reform to working directly with individuals in prison or recently released offenders in safe and effective programs. They greatly need your support, and trust me, the difference you make in other peoples' lives is beyond your imagination. So please take action now. 

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by Matt Haney, Hearts & Minds Volunteer
This web page and entire website Copyright: 1997 - 2015 by Hearts and Minds Network, Inc. All photos by Microsoft Clip Art, http://www.heartsandminds.org/articles/prisons.htm - latest text and photos changes
June 5, 2008

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