Our Injustice System (Revisited)

I don’t work in prisons.

I mean, I might have to in the near future, but as of yet, I haven’t.

Today I’m going to be making some pretty bold statements, and I want to be up front about my reasons for doing so. While I don’t work in the big house (I have had to deal with min-sec “transitional housing”- if that counts for anything), I do work exclusively with an ex-felon population. As with a bad car wreck, you don’t have to be an expert to a look at the current situation and work backwards to figure out just where things started going wrong. Now I’m not saying that prisons help cause crime, just that as they stand today, they aren’t doing a whole lot of helping.

Let me break it down here.

I. Prison Doesn’t Reform People, It Breaks Them

At this point, even the most conservative person would probably agree that the purpose of prison is to reform the inmates and prevent recidivism- the issue here is that the system’s idea of “reform” is just to break the will of the inmates.

The biggest challenge I have with my clients isn’t that they’re a bunch of off-the-walls wildcards, it’s that they’re way too meek and subservient to survive in today’s job market. Tell a former inmate “no” and he’ll be so used to authority that he’ll immediately give up.

The issue is that the model inmate and the model citizen are two utterly different things. Everything we’d admire about a person out in the real world- initiative, defiance, independence, originality- are the things which get either bred or bled out of you in the system. The perfect inmate is simply one who is obedient and unobtrusive, who follows every order to the letter and will do absolutely nothing else. How on earth is a person like that supposed to survive on the outside?

II. It Destroys Any Sense of Time

Part of the problem with crime is that it’s caused overwhelmingly by people simply not thinking about their future. Prison doesn’t do anything much to change that. Prison is regimented to the last iota- there’s no point in planning ahead because (1) you don’t have any control over anything and (2) nothing really changes anyways. There’s not much of anything in the system that would necessitate, let alone encourage, any kind of planning. When folks get out, the simple truth of the matter is that they have absolutely no concept of future. Stuff just kinda happens, and you gotta roll with it and hope the cards will be in your favor.

Pictured: Not the attitude we probably want ex-felons to have…

And we can talk about “classes”, the truth of which, aren’t of much use in the real world. Not too many jobs out there are looking for braillists and the jobs typically available in prison aren’t typically feasible outside. It’s tough to support a family on a yard-worker’s salary and jobs like industrial sewing machine operator tend to be “outsourced” to sweatshops in the third-world. I’m always disappointed to hear that an ex-felon didn’t get any work experience on the inside, but with an hourly wage of approximately 25 cents per hour (if they’re being generous), I guess it’s tough for me to blame ’em.

III. Recidivism Prevention Becomes A Catch-22

We’re so obsessed with preventing people from re-offending that any failure whatsoever to comply with the terms of their probation gets ’em rolled back up again. The point of preventing recidivism, as far as the state seems concerned, is protecting the public at large- whether the individual is actually rehabilitated or not is of no major concern.

And I kinda get that. Had Mr. _______ not stolen all that cash, we wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with, and whether or not Mr. _______’s issues are resolved really isn’t my problem.

Pictured: Our reaction to most societal ills…

Still, it doesn’t do anything to help the situation. Parole or probation isn’t just giving some officer a call once a week, or not leaving the state for a few months- it can be years of being limited to staying within a certain area. It means mandatory drug tests at random times- you get a call from your PO telling you that tomorrow you’re going to be showing up at their offices to pee in a cup, you’re going to be doing just that. It’s part of the reason I have issues getting employers to consider hiring folks recently released from incarceration- nobody wants to hire someone who’s guaranteed to miss random days of work. Again, it’s just a vicious cycle. Damned if you don’t get out, damned if you do. And on that note…

IV. Prison’s Sometimes Better

The media tends to portray prisons as being concrete hellscapes where rape and murder happen every minute and the guards are all sadistic monsters. And don’t get me wrong- murder, rape, and abuse all do happen in prison, just at lesser rates than on the outside. In 2002, for example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that homicides inside prisons occurred at a rate of roughly 3 in 100,000, while the national murder rate was 5.6 in 100,000. Although rape is a universally under-reported crime, it was likewise found to be at 0.8 per 1,000 households in the US at large and 0.4 per 1,000 inmates in the prison systems. Again, there’s a ton of issues that arise when trying to get a good grasp on any of this and, of course, none of this is meant to trivialize even a single issue. My overall point is that the depictions of prisons as deathtraps simply isn’t accurate, and for the most part they’re a lot closer to high schools than Oz.

And unpacking this point alone would take a whole post- let’s save it for another time…

Now with homelessness and unemployment both major threats on the outside, as well as the general pressures of everyday life which prison has done ****-all to help people prepare for, prison can seem like a far more appealing option. “Kill My Landlord”, one of my favorite songs by The Coup, illustrates this, describing the story of a man who murders his slumlord and winds up better off incarcerated than free.

So now I’m in cuffs for the crimes I’ve committed
Maybe I’ll go to jail, heh, or maybe I’ll get acquitted
But the fact still stands I killed my landlord dead
Now I’ve got three meals and a roof over my head

“Kill My Landlord”, The Coup, 1993

And how screwed up is that? The idea that the worst penalty our society can offer is for many a better alternative to actually having to live in society? Again, I’m not trying to make prison out to be some kind of wonderland, but when things are getting so bad that a man will commit a crime just to get some decent healthcare, then our situation’s pretty ****ed.

Let’s see if we can’t get that fixed, shall we?

(And no, making prisons worse isn’t an acceptable solution).

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