Thursday, February 1, 2007

Coming Out Worse Off Than When They Went In

Cumberland County Prison, Pennsylvania (Penn Live)
You may recognize those words from the late Tupac Shakur's song Trapped. The lyrics refer to something that is plaguing American society today: prison. More than two million Americans are behind bars today, nearly one percent of the population of the United States. Additionally, we are in an upward trend, so that number sees no hope of decreasing anytime soon. Of all the countries in the world (first, second, and third world), America incarcerates the highest proportion of their population.

The irony of prison lies in its very name: correctional system. The last thing prison does it correct someone. It breaks them down not only emotionally, but physically. I have particular interest in this subject because of my time at the ARDC on Rikers Island working with inmates.

One of the things that shocked me was the beatings that the inmates took. Count-off went wrong one day and the CO in charge hit one kid to the floor, beat another in plain view of us, then took another kid behind a closed door, leaving those of us in the hallway to only hear the sound of the CO's fist hitting the kid's body. The next week I decided to ask the inmates what their reactions were to what they had seen, because I could not get the image out of my head. I slightly expected what they told me, but was surprised nonetheless. They said that it was an everyday thing, that that particular CO had a reputation for being ruthless and that they have gotten used to the way things were on the inside.

While I hope that this is confined to this particular cell block at Rikers, I know it is not. Numerous news pieces have been done on the subject, and this week's Time magazine ran an article about supermaxes in America's prisons. America's prison system is in crisis. Do you want someone who has become used to beatings on a daily basis to be in society? The fault does not lie with the prisoner here; yes they did something to deserve incarceration (in theory), but the condition inside the prison is the government's responsibility, not the inmate's. If the inmate is causing trouble, there are myriad other ways to discipline them than physically beating them.

So where does this leave the law-abiding citizen who will never see the inside of a jail cell? You would assume that he or she should not have to worry about this because it does not affect them, but in reality it does. In 2001, states spent nearly $40 BILLION on correctional services. Where do you think this money comes from? You, the taxpayer. More is spent on the correctional system in the United States than is spent on higher education. Imagine what the government could do if it could halve that number to $20 billion. Maybe inner-city schools could be improved or police training could be made better. Either way, we are imprisoning too many people in our society and are spending way too much on a system that has failed time and again in rehabilitating those who prisons are supposed to help.

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