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Prisons Must Go


Kathryn Watterson’s Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb had been on my reading list for a while. Having just finished it, I am more convinced than ever that our prison system, as it exists now, is inhumane and criminal. It must be abolished.

This book was first published in 1973, and updated in 1996. What is perhaps the most telling is how little changed in the prison system between those years, and how little has changed in the 20 years since.

Women in Prison shares both Watterson’s point-of-view surrounding the justice system as well as letting women tell their stories in their own words. It is difficult to read without coming to the conclusion that prisons are inhumane factories of misery. They are paradoxical–meant to train people to live in society while, at the same time, isolating them from it for years on end–and the worst part may be that they don’t work at all.

Prisons, for the most part, don’t rehabilitate. Resources offered to inmates are cast by ax-grinding politicians as extravagant luxuries which, if a free but poor person cannot easily access them, prisoners should not be allowed to, either. This neglects the fact that prisoners are themselves overwhelmingly poor and lacking in resources, and that’s how many of them came to be in prison to begin with.

Prisons, by design, dehumanize. Inmates are not people, but numbers. The imprisoned must abide regimented lives of bored isolation, punctuated by the capricious whims of prison staff which may or may not be prompted by the antics of a minority of troublesome prisoners. At the federal level, most of those incarcerated are there for non-violent drug offenses. In Women in Prison, most of the women Watterson encounters are locked up over property offenses, drug crimes, prostitution, and low-level frauds like check forgery. When women go to prison for murder, it is almost always for killing an abusive intimate partner or family member. Many of these women have spent their lives in and out of prison, coming from volatile home environments, extreme poverty, lacking in education, often suffering from undiagnosed or untreated mental illness. A person who exits prison is expected to rejoin society as a contributing citizen, to hold down a job, pay taxes, and keep her nose clean. But when prisons provide no tools or guidance in achieving this, and when employers outside the prison system refuse to hire convicts, what options are we really giving people?

According to CBS News, our addiction to locking people up costs taxpayers over $60 billion a year:

Nationwide, the numbers are staggering: Nearly 2.4 million people behind bars, even though over the last 20 years the crime rate has actually _dropped_ by more than 40 percent. "The United States has about 5 percent of the world's population, but we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners - we incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any country on Earth," said Michael Jacobson, director of the non-partisan Vera Institute of Justice. He also ran New York City's jail and probation systems in the 1990s. A report by the organization, "The Price of Prisons," states that the cost of incarcerating one inmate in Fiscal 2010 was $31,307 per year. "In states like Connecticut, Washington state, New York, it's anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000," he said. Yes - $60,000 a year. That's a teacher's salary, or a firefighter's. Our epidemic of incarceration costs us taxpayers $63.4 billion a year.

The cost might be conscionable if the prison system worked–that is, if it reformed prisoners, reduced crime rates and, as part of the justice system, helped create a more just society. But it fails at all three of these things. The only thing it could be said to do with even minimal competence is to isolate people from society at large, causing extreme mental and physical stress and nurturing unhealthy habits in prisoners that will not serve them once they leave the institution. People who leave prison and don’t return are successful in spite of incarceration, not because of it.

At about this point in the discussion, the topic of reform is approached. But how do we reform a system in which every previous round of reform has only resulted in more prisons and more incarceration? How do we reform a system that plays out the exact same racial injustices exhibited in broader society without addressing those fundamental disparities?

I then call, not for prison reform, but for prison abolition. The entire concept of large institutions where individuals are locked up, denied basic human respect, and held for years on end with limited access to resources and even decent medical care is hopelessly flawed. Only a very tiny portion of prisoners are genuinely dangerous. What sense does it make to predicate an entire system on controlling the behavior of 1% of a population by dehumanizing the other 99%? Prisoners can be classified as dangerous or disruptive simply by failing to comply with orders quickly enough, attempting to communicate with other prisoners or people outside prison, agitating for better treatment, or being mentally ill. Prisons control by infantilizing inmates, dictating their every action.

Prison administrators admit that most people in prison don’t belong there, but prison staff have little control on who comes and goes. It’s a system where they must manage a population that is not of their choosing, and it is easier to rely on draconian methods of control to maintain order than to effectively treat, care for, and develop prisoners who lack good life skills into responsible citizens. Efforts to do so, while effective, are unpopular with the public and with politicians who demand “tough on crime” stances. People seem to confuse helping and educating inmates with coddling and spoiling them.

To the extent anyone should be locked away from society, it is a method that must be reserved only for those who pose an ongoing, extreme danger to others. Such institutions need not be large–there are, ultimately, not that many people who fit this description (and prison statistics make this clear). For individuals who do not fit that narrow category, incarceration is completely counterproductive. You cannot save a family by breaking it apart. You cannot help a person by psychologically destroying them. If the purpose is to teach people who have made mistakes how to function responsibly in society, then what they need is more exposure to that society–not less. They need friends, advocates, medical providers, family members. They need a system to guide and nurture them where their own parents and familial and social networks failed.

Most crimes are acts of poverty or mental illness. The latter is easier to address–treat people who need treatment. Conceptually, at least, that is not a complicated prospect, but more a problem of resource allocation and priorities. Poverty is a larger issue, but the crime that arises from it stems from two basic ideas:

  1. People who have no stake in a system have no reason to play by its rules.
  2. People who are desperate will do what they must to survive.

The solutions to this are then self-evident: people who don’t have a stake must be given one; alleviate desperation so people can avoid desperate actions.

Imagine what $63 billion could do if it was turned into health programs, job training programs, education programs, and so forth. Imagine if we spent that money–and then some–on raising up the people at the bottom of the income ladder and at the fringes of society. Most such people are where they are, not because they have personally failed, but because decades or even centuries of larger, systemic forces have gifted them a legacy of poverty and a dearth of education and marketable life skills. We could spend time and money correcting that, or we can continue wasting it by throwing people away like garbage.

Call it what you want, but that will never be justice.

Photo by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums