There’s not really a lot of things that I’m dead certain on, but I’ve learned something in the last few years that I will forever take a brutal stance on: that the American prison system does not work.
As I’ve been regularly corrected that “jail” is not “prison”, I will state that this applies to our “jail” systems as well.
I’ve come by this perspective through first hand experience. Not by going to prison or jail myself, but by watching a close friend make steady progress only to throw it all away because of the jail time he was required to serve. This particular friend of mine struggles with alcohol abuse, and unfortunately seems to get in petty trouble with the law every time he gets intoxicated. He’s been in and out of jail at least four times for various alcohol-related crimes, and can’t seem to ever get back on track before being set right back at square one after coming out of a long and destructive jail term.
This friend of mine has tried and tried HARD to stop drinking. In fact, he’s been clean for months at a time, only to take up drinking again after being released from jail. The typical cycle that I’ve seen goes something like this:
- After serving a month’s time, he’s finally released from jail.
- It may be several days; it may be several weeks; but eventually, he gets drunk. He’s been sheltered for so long that he simply doesn’t know how to behave himself, and he’s still ticked off at the world from his jail time.
- In his drunken state he does something stupid and gets arrested.
- He gets scared, can’t believe how stupid he was (again), and vows to never drink again. He doesn’t, for the time being.
- The judge sentences him something like one or two months of jail time for his actions, to be served two months in the future.
- He gets help, doesn’t drink, and lives life as a responsible and sober human being for the next two months.
- He humbly turns himself in for his jail time (literally walking to the jail).
- Slowly but surely his anger builds and his opinion of himself lowers. When he gets out, all of his previous progress is ruined, and the whole process starts all over again.
I’ve seen this whole damned process happen, in full, at least three times. Pieces of it have happened many more times. He’s stuck in a society that refuses to allow him to improve. It’s been extremely frustrating for my wife and I because we have been largely responsible for his past progress (he’s lived with us twice). And yet, by the end we knew full well what the next jail term would do. And sure enough, it never fails to destroy any progress that was made.
Think for a second what the reasons behind this behavior might be. How would you respond to being locked in a cage for the vast majority of your days? Without any respectful human interaction? Without any decent amenities? I know I would turn into a bitter, angry, and troubled human being. Would this really do any good for anyone?
I realize that there are occasional “I turned my life around” stories that we hear about from time to time, but they are few and far between. For most people, confinement and a lack of love have a very negative affect. They generate hatred, not humility and respect for others. Hating on criminals only makes them haters. It’s no secret that hate breeds hate. The few positive outcomes are the result of some sort of external positive influence (be it a particularly caring officer, volunteer, personal faith, or even possibly another inmate); these outcomes are never simply the result of the system.
I’ve had these views for a long while, but until now did not have what I believed to be a true or even a partial “fix” for the system. However, I read an article recently about Norway’s “open prison system” that opened my eyes:
I would encourage you to read the above article, but in a nutshell, prisoners are sent to an island community where they work normal hours and live a normal (though humble) lifestyle. They can enjoy the community, pride themselves in their work, and enjoy enough freedom to at least keep themselves sane. I imagine there’s still plenty of discipline, and I’m sure I wouldn’t exactly enjoy my time there, but it’s a step toward encouraging growth, instead of labeling the down and out as permanent losers and never allowing them to improve.
Granted, the system isn’t perfect (no system would be), but it is certainly closer to a humane correctional system. I believe it’s our responsibility to speak up about our failed correctional system and do everything we can to improve it. This is the direction we need to take.
There’s lots of room for further discussion (from scare tactics to the cost of implementing such a system to the possible politics), but I’ll leave that wide open for the comments. Please share your thoughts. :)