Prisons Need Fundamental Changes

By · Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Timothy Perea commented on an article I wrote about prison policies. He disagreed with my position that we needed reforms to improve the effectiveness of prison. Timothy felt convinced that prisons should result in harsh punishment and that providing any type of incentives would only breed more crime. I disagree, and I appreciate the opportunity Timothy gave for me to change his mind.

As Benjamin Franklin, one of our country’s founding fathers, famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

My experience of being locked in prison for the past 21-plus years is that these institutions are a colossal waste of taxpayer resources. Society needs an effective prison system. Yet the prison system of today costs taxpayers $60 billion each year to operate. Seven of every ten people who serve time in America’s prisons fail again upon release. Those lobbyists who support the prison system use propaganda to frighten American citizens into believing that the answer lies in harsher conditions. The harsher conditions result in larger prison expenditures that support businesses that supply the prison system, but recidivism rates show that they do not result in safer communities.

I am convinced that prison reforms could change the infrastructure that exists inside these caged communities. Rather than harsh penalties that extinguish hope, I feel convinced that administrators should make use of incentives  that would encourage more prisoners to adjust in positive ways. By operating oppressive prisons, administrators create environments where failure, violence, and corruption proliferates. That may satisfy a lust for punishment and vengeance, but it does not make for an effective public policy. If taxpayers value vengeance, harshness, and punitive prisons, then the system that exists today is very effective. It is costly, but effective. Prisons expertly punish. They separate people mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually from society. They decimate hope and foster subcultures of failure, discouraging positive adjustments. They result in the spreading of gangs that contaminate communities inside prisons and beyond. They swallow taxpayer funds that otherwise would go to education and health care.

Fundamental changes in the prison system would encourage prisoners to educate themselves, develop skills that would translate into contributing lives, and build strong networks of community support. Prison reforms would motivate prisoners to work toward earning freedom and embracing the values that make America great. Those reforms would result in safer communities and lower operating costs for prisons, but they would not meet the needs of prison lobbyists who delude taxpayers into believing that we need harsher prisons.

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