The Mouse House has a blog entry about appropriate punishment for criminals in our overcrowded prison system. The Madmouser likened the current U.S. prison system to Home Sweet Home, that it’s too cushy.
The Madmouser’s point is that a prison stay needs to be so difficult that people would think twice about doing a criminal act for fear of going to prison. It needs to be a better deterrent rather than a home away from home. Google up articles on recidivism rates in the U.S., however, and you’ll find that hard labor and long prison sentences – like the death penalty – are unfortunately not much of a deterrent to future crime.
For brevity, I’m going to generalize here and lump inmates into the category of violent criminals, even though many are incarcerated for non-violent felonies. I think that the Madmouser may be misjudging the nature of the U.S. prison system. Spend a day there – or to talk to anyone who counsels inmates or employees – to get an appreciation for the brutality of the current system, which is based almost solely on punishment. Rehabilitation – or rather, preparing the inmate for an eventual release back into society – is nearly nonexistent. We throw our prisoners into prison and when their time is up we throw them onto the street. We literally try to train them to become less violent and more like us by beating the crap out of them.
The prison system is brutal for many reasons, not the least of which is the pervasive personalities (think gangs) of many inmates themselves. The U.S. system is also designed to take away basic choices and to replace them with no choice but that of the corrections officers. The biggest brutality is that the system encourages rage, and rage provokes action without thinking.
It is true that many inmates (and ex-inmates) think of prison as a home away from home. After all, compared to how they lived their lives on the outside, it’s a stable environment, and long confines in that environment create enduring relationships, often the only enduring relationships the person ever had. Old friends, however, are generally not the reason that so many felons become repeat felons. As a country we’ve been great at eliminating inmate re-entry services whose aim was to provide support to get ex-cons back on their feet. As a country we don’t do much of anything to re-integrate ex-felons, so it’s only a matter of time before isolation and societal ostracism lead them to desperate or criminal acts.
Figuring out a way to reduce rage – to calm the savage beast – might be a good deterrent to crime, but that’s got to begin before someone commits a criminal act. We have to take back our children if we hope to solve the prison problem. Our society doesn’t seem to want to do this; it’s not as easy as locking someone away, but I’d bet that it would be much less expensive in the long run.