Squandering Billions on Corrections

By · Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

America squanders $59 billion each year on a system that ridiculously calls itself corrections. According to the famous social scientist James Q. Wilson, society should limit the purpose of this system to isolating and punishing offenders.  I wonder when American citizens will tire of this failed public policy.

Too many American citizens live with delusions that long-term imprisonment makes for safer communities. By isolating and punishing, the thought goes, offenders will refrain from criminal acts in order to avoid the possible sanctions. Some merit exists in the theory that the fears of punishment keeps people in line, thought 22 years of living in prison convinces me that prolonged isolation and punishment renders society less safe and wastes taxpayer resources.

In Professor Joan Petersilia’s work, I read that between the 1920s and 1970, America incarcerated its residents at a rate of 110 per every 100,000 people in the population. Since the 1970s, we’ve increased that rate of imprisonment to more than 700 prisoners for every 100,000 people in our country. America incarcerates more than 2.3 million people, and more than 700,000 prisoners return to society each year.

By only isolating and punishing, society has conditioned those offenders for continuing cycles of failure. That is the reason government statistics show that 67 percent, or two out of every three prisoners, return to confinement within three years of release. This policy of isolation and punishment does not render society safer.

My experience of living in prison convinces me that long-term imprisonment makes society less safe. As people spend decades in confinement, they learn to adjust to confinement in ways that they perceive makes their time pass easier. Without hope for relief, they join gangs, they hustle contraband, they corrupt the institution. As prisoners adjust to confinement negatively, they simultaneously condition themselves for failure upon release.

We need prison reforms that will encourage prisoners to empower themselves. Those reforms should offer opportunities for prisoners to earn freedom through merit. Isolating and punishing only keeps the cycle of failure going. We need a more enlightened approach to corrections. We should start by rewarding success. Perhaps citizens will start the process by supporting my petition for commutation.

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