“The American Federal Sentencing guidelines state that a prison’s purpose is to provide retribution, to educate, to deter, and to incapacitate” (Murray 1). Yet, do prisons actually perform their legally defined purpose, and is this purpose even effective? The Bureau of Justice Statistics Home Page tells us that,”Of the 272,111 persons released from prisons in 15 states in 1994, an estimated 67.5% were re-arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years.” A rearrest rate of more than sixty-seven percent shows that prisons are not significantly effective in deterring criminals from re-offending upon release. Currently, prisons do perform the intended purpose of providing retribution and incapacitation, but they do not deter, nor do they educate. American prisons are not performing their intended purpose and are in much need of reform. Further, while prisoners are serving their sentences, they should receive rehabilitation, so that when they are released from prison, they are ready to become productive members of society once again.
Among civilized nations, American prisons have the highest incarceration rate. In fact, 702 of every 100,000 Americans are in prison. Russia comes in second with a rate of 628 per 100,000. Two good friends of the U.S., Britain with a rate of 125 per 100,000 (Murphy 1), and Japan with a rate of 40 per 100,000, have significantly lower rates. Notice that countries such as communist China, North Korea, and Cuba, whom we often associate with a high restriction on individual rights, do not appear on the list (Mauer 3). Another astonishing statistic is that the incarceration rate for black males in 1991 was 3,109 per 100,000, which was 4.2 times the rate for black males in South Africa (Christianson 283). Why is this so significant? South Africa at the time used the policy of apartheid! Apartheid officially made it legal to discriminate against those who were not white. This meant that individuals who were not white were treated according to different standards than whites, and that it would be legal to put a black man in jail for doing the same things as a white man who was not put in jail, or he could be put in jail for a longer time. Another example of frivolity in the American prison system is California’s famous “three strikes and you’re out” law. This law gave repeat offenders a life sentence after they had committed three crimes. Scott Christianson gives us a good example of the extreme punishment imposed by this law: “In one famous case…a twenty-seven year old man was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison for stealing a piece of pizza” (282). Common sense would tell us that stealing pizza is obviously something we shouldn’t do, but it would also tell us that this man does not deserve to go to prison for twenty-five years!
Clearly, statistics show that American prisons and the justice system are in need of some serious work. But what are the institutions like that we use to house those that are determined to be a threat to society? Are these institutions effective in the prevention of crime? And lastly, do they deter the released prisoner from committing future crimes?
Currently, the most popular solutions to crime are longer sentences and increasingly harsh punishment of inmates while in prison. The United States Penitentiary located in Marion, Illinois, is an excellent example of excessive punishment. Marion, as it is called, was first put in operation in 1963. In 1979 it became the first ever American level six prison, and finally in 1983 it became known officially as a “Control Unit”(the term we use now is supermax) prison. A supermax prison is “a prison or part of a prison that is in a state of permanent lockdown,” which is usually only a temporary condition used to restore order if things get out of control (“Prison Activist…”). During lockdown, inmates are placed in solitary confinement for twenty-two to twenty-three hours per day in cells that measure six feet by eight feet. Inmates are only allowed showers two or three times per week, exercise two or three times per week, cannot come in physical contact with visitors, and can only make a maximum of ten minutes of phone calls in one given month. The justification for the use of control units is that they are used to house the “worst of the worst” criminals, the most violent prisoners who are a threat to guards and other prisoners (Committee…).
How and why Marion became a supermax prison is a short story. In 1983, just a few years after Marion became a level six institution, four guards were killed by inmates. Even though no other prisoner violence toward guards ensued and the individuals responsible for the four murders were quickly apprehended, Marion’s warden declared a state of emergency and ordered “lockdown”, which is when all prisoners are confined to their cells. The guards were allowed to do whatever they wanted to the inmates. David Hale, who was a guard at Marion at the time, vividly recalls,”I seen them carry one inmate down the corridor with a guard on each leg and one on each arm. The assistant warden comes down the hall and grabs the inmate’s testicles and starts yanking on them, saying, ‘Who’s doing it to who now, boy?’ Well that was a signal for every guard in the place to do whatever the hell he wanted. I can’t describe it to you-I never seen beatings like that. At least fifty guys got it, maybe more” (Lassiter qtd. in Committee). Guards were equipped with helmets, plastic shields, and bullet-proof vests. They were also given three foot long rods with a steel ball at the end called a “rib-spreader”. A “rib-spreader” was designed to inflict pain on the individual without breaking bones or causing bruises. Again, at Marion,”Prisoners were punched in the face, choked, knocked to the ground, and driven head-first into walls and metal doors. Four prisoners were beaten while in the prison hospital. In many cases, prisoners were handcuffed during the beatings.” These guards were performing many of the same atrocities that landed the criminals in prison, and yet what the guards do is not illegal (Committee…).
Excessive violence is often found in prisons, as evidenced by the fact that in 1998 fifty-nine inmates were killed by fellow inmates, and “…6,750 inmates and 2,331 correctional staff were injured seriously enough to require medical attention” (“Prisons”). But one should not misconstrue the idea that violence occurs every day and all the time. Most of the time, prisons are boring, dull, and lifeless places, as inmates are usually under supervision for the large majority of the day and have little time to actually find trouble. Occasionally, there is this excessive violence that I have described. An anonymous inmate who referred to himself as inmate #12345, of Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Illinois makes several observations about prison life: “…keeping peace between prisoner and prisoner is the prevailing aim [of prison guards]…all drugs are, ready available at about twice their street price, payable inside or outside the prison. Some are brought in by guards, some make their way in with visitors…” He also adds,”the showers are dangerous places; gangs tend to shower together as a protective measure…” and sums up his experience in prison by saying,”…you are never for a moment happy…” (Morris and Rothman 232-236). I had a chance to speak with Jim Ehrenberg, currently a guard at Waupan Correctional, a maximum security prison in Waupan, Wisconsin. He has been a guard for a total of thirty-one years and was a guard inside the prison for twenty-two. He agrees with the previous anonymous inmate when he says,”[Being a prison guard is] seven hours and fifty minutes of boredom…but anything could happen…anyone could hit you in the head or stab you…” About drugs, he says,”It’s hard to find drugs if someone really wants to get them in…visitors mostly [bring the drugs] and guards occasionally [bring the drugs].”
Many of the ideas behind a control unit are also slowly trickling down to the state and local level. The state penitentiary in Lebanon, Ohio allows for prisoners to be detained in six foot by eight foot cells, the exact same size as the cells in Marion. Each of these cells has another smaller room in the back, which is much darker and is used to confine prisoners even further if it is determined they need to be under more strict control. “The Jefferson County Detention Center in Colorado…was designed to allow for a range of control measures, including nearly round-the-clock cell confinement.” (Committee). New York City has what they call a Central Punitive Segregation Unit, which holds 300 individuals who are under twenty-one under twenty-three hour per day lockdown, and the majority of these individuals are awaiting trial-and haven’t yet been proven guilty of any crime. Does something about this sound wrong to you? I would hope it does because to any reasonable person, it should seem fair that a person who is awaiting trial should not be placed under such intense restrictions! (Committee).
The main point of all this preceding information is again to show that prisons are in much need of reform. We don’t need to “get tougher” on criminals or to be cliché, “lock’em up and throw away the key.” Mark Mauer backs up my claim that prisons do not deter initial offenses and subsequent reoffenses by stating that the rate of incarceration in America has sharply increased since 1972 (2). The idea of “getting tougher on crime” has been popular from the 1970’s to the present, and I have shown through statistics and examples that the harsh conditions and longer sentences have done nothing to deter individuals from offending or reoffending. Again, let me remind you that 67.5% of all individuals who are released from prison are rearrested within three years, and they are usually involved in a “felony or serious misdemeanor” (Murray 8). Again, Jim Ehrenberg, a guard of thirty-one years, agrees with me when he says,”The system doesn’t do a lot to help the inmates to not reoffend.” So what is it that we should do? Harsher sentences don’t work, what possibly could?
Some individuals have thought that some form of “rehabilitation” might prevent crime from happening in the first place or reduce the likelihood of it occurring again. Two of the earliest rehabilitative attempts were scared straight programs and boot camps. “Scared Straight”, first introduced in 1978, took young teens, who were already committing petty crimes and were determined to be likely to enter prison later on in life, and gave them a tour of a prison. After the tour, teens were then left with criminals who were serving life sentences. These criminals then did their best to convey to the teens that prison life was horrible and filled with violence in an attempt to scare these teens so badly that they would never want to commit a crime serious enough to land them in prison. Early on, many children had confirmed that after this experience, they were in fact “scared straight”, and would not commit serious crimes. However, scientific reviews have shown that scared straight does not have a significant impact on reducing the crime rate among teens. The first study actually performed found higher crime rates in a group of teens exposed to scared straight, compared to a group who did not experience any sort of program at all. Many studies have found that scared straight has no effect on juveniles, and some have again shown that crime rates are significantly higher in individuals exposed to scared straight (Murray 10).
Another effort to change the lives of criminals was boot camps. The first boot camps appeared in 1983 and spread rapidly throughout the country after that. They were originally based on the military, using drills and strict discipline, but later on became more like “intensely supervised community service.” Boot camps had a good motive behind them-to deter current criminals from crime and provide the local community with increased safety. However, again studies have been unable to show that boot camps have a significant impact in crime reduction. The best study showed that graduates of boot camp had fewer rearrests than those placed on probation in one state, and more arrests in two. Generally, boot camps have shown a pretty standard rearrest rate of seventy percent (Murray 11).
So what can we do? Rehabilitation programs are sometimes effective and sometimes ineffective. Is there anything that has been shown to reduce criminal reoffense? Fortunately, there has. Studies have shown that rehabilitative programs that are tailored to the need of each individual do have a significant impact on the reduction of reoffense. Iain Murray, Director of Research at the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington, D.C. tells us,”Truly effective rehabilitative action…must be taken at the individual level” and he later adds,”Successful rehabilitative exercises recognize the whole of the offender’s set of needs [not just one such as substance abuse or anger management], and proceed to address them as best they can” (2, 25). Andrea Emodi, Program Coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Massachusetts Department of Correction Program Division, and William Loehfelm, State Director for Spectrum Addiction Services Inc., all experienced professionals with prominent positions in their respective areas, agree with Murray and say “…inmates need to acquire certain skills that not only contribute to their recovery from substance abuse, but also reduce their likelihood of reoffending” (88).
An excellent example of success in individual treatment would be the Key and Crest programs used in Delaware. The Key program was based on the theory that the abuse of drugs is an abnormality of the person himself, and therefore it targeted changing the criminal’s inner feelings and self-esteem. All criminals attended this program voluntarily approximately eighteen months before their release. Dr. James Inciardi, of the University of Delaware, tells us,”The Key is a therapeutic community, a self-contained treatment environment separated from the drugs and violence often found in prisons… the Key was the cleanest, safest, most trouble-free section of the prison…” (Inciardi qtd. in Murray 17).
After completing the Key program and and being released from prison, criminals entered the Crest Outreach Center for six months of treatment and job training in a clean and safe environment, much like the Key program. For the first three months, criminals stayed in the center to learn how to find a job, how to write a resume, and how to interview. The staff who administers treatment is a mixture of professional counselors and recovering drug users. The security provided at the Crest Center is a bare minimum. A correctional officer walks through the center three times a day and counts the present individuals. A public address system makes announcements periodically (Murray 18).
Both of these programs kept prisoners separate from the harsh conditions, punishments, and violence that are experienced in prison. Both allowed focus on the individual in different ways. Key participants were isolated from the rest of the criminals in prison, so counselors could work individually with those who desired help. The Crest program was run with “an eye to both program integrity and professional discretion; the inclusion of recovering drug users in the staff particularly allows for greater sensitivity to the problems that might befall these former offenders” (Murray 18).
These programs, like scared straight and boot camps, sound like they have good intentions, but did they have better success? Eighteen months after the release of these criminals, follow-up studies were conducted, and these are the findings: A group of criminals in this same prison who did not participate in either the Key or Crest program showed a rearrest rate of 70%, which is pretty close to the expected average; a group that participated only in the Key program showed a slightly better rearrest rate of 52%; a group that only participated in the Crest program did even better at 35%; but, best of all, individuals participating in both the Key and Crest programs were rearrested at a rate of just 29%! (Murray 18).
Another example of a solid program is the Break The Cycle program used in Birmingham, Alabama. It is similar to Key and Crest in that it is again tailored to the individual, and is different in the respect that it works on drug offenders that are not sentenced to prison. Each case is treated separately, each criminal is punished or reinforced according to a scale determined to fit his need, and is treated or tested for drugs as is necessary. The rearrest rate for participants of this program was a very low 24%.
The important thing to remember about these programs is that the emphasis was placed on the individual and helping him or her to reach his or her goals. Compare this to scared straight and boot camps, which use exactly the same method for each person. A juvenile is lined up, exposed to terrifying conditions or placed in a boot camp, and it is expected that this will work on each and every individual, regardless of how different from or similar to the next person he is. Common sense would tell us that we are all different from each other, so why should we be expected to respond to the same experiences in exactly the same manner? The second important characteristic in these programs is that much thought was placed in them during their design. Another excellent idea is using someone who has actually experienced problems with drugs and is recovering to treat someone who also suffers from drug problems and wants help, as in the Crest program.
The solution to the current problems of our prison system would consist of many parts. The first important item to be addressed would be the current excessive punishments and violence. A crackdown should be made on guards smuggling in drugs and beating up prisoners excessively, like those in Marion. Guards should be restricted to using violence only to defend themselves or to protect the safety of the inmates, as there will always be some violence between inmates. Prisoners should also be treated as humans and be allowed to shower regularly, go outside and exercise, as well as eat a balanced diet. In other words, they should have most of the same rights you and I have, but they should still be segregated from society. However, the prisons should take on less of a punishment function, and more of a positive and rehabilitative function.
The second and more important point in the prevention of criminal relapse is not only to eliminate the deplorable and increasingly restrictive conditions often found, but also to rehabilitate each and every individual. Each criminal, as soon as he is beginning to serve his prison sentence, should be evaluated by a mental health professional and should then be placed in rehabilitation programs according to his or her individual need. Some programs consistent with my idea are already in existence. Andrea Emodi, a co-creator of the Correctional Recovery Academy, writes the following about her program “…assessment units determine program placement using a recidivism (the technical term for criminal relapse)/needs assessment” (88). Different issues such as drug and alcohol addiction, anger management, and mental illness will appear in various individuals, and different programs or techniques should be developed to treat each person. Research on programs that do work has not been very extensive, so I cannot say that the Key and Crest programs would work in Appleton, Wisconsin. However, we should begin testing out programs according to the same guidelines used in Key and Crest, measure our success, and then make improvements on the programs as we learn more about how to deal with this issue. Mental health professionals have already established a baseline for “normal” behavior, so periodically while prisoners are serving their sentences, they should be tested to see how their mental processes measure against “normal” mental processes. When the mental health professional is positive that the prisoner is “healthy”, beyond the shadow of a doubt, and when the prisoner has served his sentence, he should be released. But, he should also have to check-in with his designated professional, and should have fairly close supervision for at least a couple years after his release. Yes, some criminals will reoffend, but currently 67.5% do so, and if we rehabilitate and release these same individuals according to my defined procedure, we will see a reduction in criminal relapse.
What do we do with criminals who have no desire to be rehabilitated? Well, the only option is to let them sit in prison. Prison conditions will be improved, but ultimately, the choice is up to the individual. If he does not desire to change his life and his ways, he will still be a threat to society after his release, so common sense would tell us that we should keep this person in prison.
What do we do with murderers and those who attempted to commit homicide? There is already much disagreement on this issue and much controversy, but it is my personal belief that a murderer deserves to be put to death. He has sacrificed his right to live by taking the life of another. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood by shed” is a phrase from the Bible where Christians believe that God gave government the right to perform capital punishment. However, I feel we need to be one hundred percent sure we have the right individual. In recent years, many innocent people on death row have been released, and unfortunately, many innocents have been executed. I believe these people have a right to live in prison until we are absolutely sure that they have indeed committed the murders of which they were accused.
The third important point to remember is common sense. Common sense should govern everything that we do. Common sense tells us that a man who steals a slice of pizza should not go to prison for twenty-five years. Common sense tells us that severe punishment is not as effective as rehabilitation.
The last thing I would like to say is that there is no side to this issue that is “losing something.” Prison should be reformed, but should still exist. Guards and wardens will still keep their jobs. Jobs will actually be added because we will need more individuals to spend time helping these criminals changing their lives. The impact on the economy would also be huge. John DiLulio, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, says that one federal inmate costs $14,456 per year in taxes. If, like the Crest and Key programs, our current prison population of two million was rearrested at a rate of just 29%, that would be a yearly savings of 20.5 billion dollars! Plus, these rehabilitated criminals would be done wasting their time in jail and would instead be a benefit to our economy in that they would buy more goods and provide valuable services.
The bottom line is that only good can come from solving this evolving problem, and everyone benefits from its solution. So, why not begin our work on this today so that we can become the model other nations look up to when fighting crime?
“Bureau of Justice Statistics Home Page.” 30 Nov. 2004 .
Christianson, Scott. With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America.
Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.
Committee to End the Marion Lockdown. Control Unit Prisons. 4 Nov. 2004
Ehrenberg, Jim. Personal interview. 12 Dec. 2004.
Emodi, Andrea, William Loehfelm, and Christopher Mitchell. “Developing an Inmate Program that Works.” Corrections Today 58.5(1996): 88-89.
Mauer, Mark. “Comparative International Rates of Incarceration: An Examination of Causes and Trends.” 7 Dec. 2004 http://www.sentencingproject.org/pdfs/pub9036.pdf>.
Morris, Norval and David Rothman. The Oxford History of the Prison. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Murphy, Cait. “Crime and Punishment.” Fortune 143.9(2001): 126-32.
Murray, Iain. “Making Rehabilitation Work.” 24 Nov. 2004 http://www.civitas.org.uk/pdf/Rehab.pdf>.
DiLulio, John, and Anne Piehl. “Does Prison Pay? Sensible Sentencing NZ
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