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The Shawshank Redemption Of the US Penal System

Posted by estevennewby@yahoo.com on March 13, 2013 at 9:25 PM

Okay, that's a really lame title, but bear with me.

One of my favorite scenes in The Shawshank Redemption was the moment we find Andy Dufresne confiding to Red that he’d had to “got to prison to learn to be a criminal.” I love this comment because it speaks so honestly about our judicial system. Lots of people cite our prisons as having a recivity rate in the upper 70s, meaning that three-quarters of all inmates who are released at the end of their sentences will be re-incarcerated at some point in their lives. Either that statistic is an exaggeration, or Good Ol’ Google let me down. What I could find stated that 40% of all inmates will find themselves back behind bars within the first three years of their release. That’s still a staggering figure, considering that more than 60% of our 2.5 million prisoners are doing time for non-violent crimes. (http://reason.com/archives/2011/06/08/prison-math ) And a good percentage of those who are rearrested will be arrested for a violent crime, which implies that our prison system is better at making violent criminals than it is at making productive citizens.


When I talk to people about prison reform, most are in favor of it. What I find striking is that they’re in favor of it for drastically different reasons. About half are of the opinion that we need to take pointers from the Toughest Sheriff in America, Joe Arpaio. Basically, make the prisoners wish they’d never committed that crime—make their time a living hell so that when they’re released they’ll effectively be “scared straight”. I get the logic of that. But I also understand what others say when they maintain that you can’t teach people to be better citizens by treating them like animals. They cite advances in humanitarian practices like Bastoy Prison Island in Norway (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/feb/25/norwegian-prison-inmates-treated-like-people ) , or the Tihar Prison Complex in India (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tihar_Jail or check out Kiran Bedi’s book It’s Always Possible: One Woman’s Transformation of India’s Prison System), which fosters spiritual growth and accountability in the inmates. Both prisons have substantially lower recivity rates than any prison in the United States.


I’ve heard the rebuttals. Pamper the guilty, educate the depraved, and soon we’ve got a class of citizens who regard the penal system as a free ticket to a better life. Commit a crime and society will feed the guilty, take care of him all nice-like (he’ll get more than three hots and a cot): the state will even teach the deviant how to make a decent living when he gets out. Hell, the Pell Grant can’t do that. Makes sense. Then there’s the flip side: put a non-violent offender amidst violent offenders, where the law of the land is supplanted by the law of the jungle, and we end up with a person who is institutionalized toward antisocial behavior. Just warehousing them away only defers the consequence of their behavior for a decade or two, but does nothing to make them better citizens. That also makes sense.


Regardless if we think that prisoners should be shamed and punished, or treated as equals, I think the real question we must ask is what is our ultimate intention? Why are we arresting these people? I’m looking for deeper answers here. Not: because we have to, or because society will fall apart if there are no consequences for antisocial behavior. Do we regard incarceration as a form of societal retribution? Do we think that citizens can be scared straight? We’re investing almost $30K a year for each inmate. Simple math tells you that at that rate, an incarcerated population of 2.5 million costs a hell of a lot of money. What’s the return on investment we hope to get here? Shall we just warehouse the guilty with the guilty and hope that things work themselves out by the time their sentences are up? Or do we hope that our investment in this person yields a healthy, functioning citizen?


Depending on a person’s worldview, either option may appeal. But I think either view only addresses half the equation. There is mounting evidence that suggests the hard-lined “scare-em-straight” approach doesn’t work. Not for lack of trying, don’t get me wrong. Joe Arpaio gives me the willies just thinking about internment in Arizona. But teaching someone in no uncertain terms that they messed up—and that they never, ever, ever want to mess up again—does not prepare them for life on the outside where, supposedly, they are never, ever, ever going to mess up again. http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/incarceration-2010-06.pdf


Take someone who’s been incarcerated for a decade in a maximum security prison, for example: does he know how to apply for a job on the outside? Does he know how to budget income and expenses, verses reverting to thievery? Does he know how to settle interpersonal disputes, verses going for the jugular with a field-improvised shiv? Much like a soldier coming home from extended tours in a warzone, our former prisoner will find that domestic life does not operate by the rules he is accustomed to following. He has beep prepared for—and has depended on—a different skillset than what works in the civilian world. Even in The Shawshank Redemption, we find characters like Brooks, or Red who, upon release, discovered that they were so institutionalized they couldn’t really fathom how the outside world worked anymore.


In my not-so-humble opinion, I think the approach needs to be balanced. Obviously, we do not want citizens who perceive incarceration as a means to a better end. Frankly, given the state of the U.S. prison system (with possible exception to minimum security prisons), I don’t think that would be a concern. A prison sentence should be a punishment. But for those who we intend to reintegrate into the fold, our efforts should not only be to punish, but to show them how to toe the line. I don’t believe in “Bad Seeds”. I don’t really believe people are beyond redemption, which is why I spent several previous blog posts talking about the idea of the redemption of antagonists. Therefore, I do advocate educating prisoners beyond simple GEDs. Job training, economics, interpersonal skills: even if somebody inadvertently gets a “free” education out of the taxpayers, we should celebrate the successful habilitation of a citizen, and the breaking of the “poverty cycle” which is a leading contributor to crime. After all, isn't reducing crime the idea?


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