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Brutal Prisons Are Hurting Us All

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Get caught stealing a lamb in 18th century England and you wound up dancing in the air at the end of a rope. Recidivism was not a problem. But the "hang 'em high" approach did not work all that well due to corruption and soft-hearted juries.

If we give up the idea of executing all convicted criminals, what should we do with them? Transporting them to Australia was another British solution, but that probably isn't an option today. Rejecting other old England ideas such as branding and the pillory, the principal solution of choice today in the US is, of course, the prison. But, since it would be far too expensive to imprison all convicts for life, nearly all of them have to be released at some point.

Unfortunately, rather than deter people from committing crimes, our system seems to have the reverse effect, as a lot of inmates are brutalized by their prison experience and come out worse than when they went in. The overall effect is to train and motivate criminals. Most of those released wind up back inside within a few years. The cost of this failure to all of us is enormous, both in human and in monetary terms [1]. Before considering possible solutions, let's take a look at what exists today.

Who Gets Locked Up?

Note first that the US leads the world in the incarceration race. We have more prisoners, roughly 2.3 million, and more prisoners per capita than any other country. Think of it! The land of the free jails more people than China or Russia!

Those who use illicit drugs or who peddle them in small quantities constitute a majority of federal prisoners and about a fifth of those in state and local prisons [2]. About half of all state prisoners are there for violent crimes ranging from assault to murder. Roughly 20% are there for property offenses such as burglary or forgery, about 7.5% for public-order offenses such as prostitution, pornography, or gambling.

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Most prisoners are recruited from among the poor. The worst of them have killed or severely injured one or a few people, Many have stolen goods or money amounting to thousands of dollars, But those wealthy enough to afford high power attorneys seldom are jailed, regardless of what they do. Purdue Pharma executives, convicted of falsely marketing the prescription painkiller OxyContin as being non-addictive, were fined, sentenced to four months of community service and put on probation. A former coal miner, caught with two OxyContin pills and 2.4 grams of cocaine, is serving a 15-year prison sentence [3]. A Bristol-Myers Squibb executive convicted of perjury in connection with a price-fixing scheme was fined $5000, sentenced to two years probation, and ordered to -- brace yourself -- write a book! [4].

How are Convicts "Corrected"?

In novels and TV dramas, suspects grilled by detectives are often threatened with incarceration under conditions where they will be subject to brutal treatment. This seems to reflect reality quite well. The shocking Abu Ghraib photos resemble what goes on in some American prisons [5].

Inmates are often assaulted by both prison guards and by other prisoners. Many violent inmates belong to prison gangs, who exercise considerable control over life within the walls. Prison authorities often find it convenient to tolerate gangs.

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A substantial number of convicts are uneducated to the point of illiteracy. Many suffer from mental or physical illnesses that directly or indirectly got them into trouble. These factors add substantially to their difficulty in fitting into normal life after release.

If our prison system were truly serious about reducing recidivism, then major efforts would be made to educate prisoners and to treat their physical and mental problems. Addiction to drugs and alcohol would also be addressed. Few prison systems make more than token efforts along these lines. The result is that most convicts are back in -prison within three years after release.

Life after prison

A critical issue is the difficulty encountered by ex-convicts in being accepted back into society and in finding jobs. It should not be surprising that many of those unable to find work commit further crimes, particularly if there is no effective support from family. This outcome is even more likely in the case of individuals with severe educational deficiencies and/or unresolved psychological or physical problems. Why should we care? I doubt if many criminals or ex-cons are reading this article. Doubtless, some readers, or people they know, have been victims of lawbreakers. Hearing that some thug who assaulted and robbed an old lady is now having a hard time does not tend to arouse great feelings of sympathy in the hearts of most of us.

But (there always seems to be a "but"!) there are important reasons why we should all be concerned about the way our criminal justice system, and our penal system in particular, is operating. A pivotal point is that the "lock 'em up, beat 'em up, and throw away the key" approach is dramatically counter-productive. It is wasting huge amounts of the taxpayer's money, inflating business costs in several ways, and, more important, is responsible for a large portion of the violent crimes that are causing pain and grief to countless numbers of innocent people.

If we could improve the system so as to reduce recidivism from over 50% to say, less than 30%, the number of criminals. both on the street and behind bars, would be greatly reduced. The number of people hurt by criminals in various ways would fall dramatically, and the costs of the system would eventually go down sharply. The beneficiaries would also include those currently committing the crimes, and their families.

Another, more idealistic, reason for concern is well captured in the quote below, from an unexpected source:

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The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state and even of convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry of all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if only you can find it in the heart of every person.

I'll bet you didn't guess that these words were written by that well known bleeding heart liberal, Winston Churchill. This is part of a statement he made a century ago when, as Home Secretary in the British cabinet, he proposed major reforms in the British penal system [6].

When thinking about convicted criminals it is natural to picture vicious hoodlums gunning down gas station attendants or raping 16 year olds. Sadly, such people do exist, and need to be dealt with appropriately. I'll get back to them shortly. First, let's understand that they constitute a small fraction of the prison population, The majority of prison inmates are there because they were caught with 6 ounces of marijuana or crack cocaine, or stole a car, or forged a check, or stole a jacket from a department store, or a DVD player from someone's house. Many of the violent crimes committed by other inmates were of the nature of bar room brawls. The point is that the great majority of those in prison, especially the younger people, are far from being beyond redemption.

How Can We Do Better?

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I am an engineer. My degrees are in electrical engineering and my work has been in the digital systems area, mainly digital logic, but also computer organization, software and theory. I am a Professor, Emeritus, Computer Science and Electrical (more...)
 

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