Every civilization in history has had rules, and citizens who break them. To this day governments struggle to figure out the best way to deal with their criminals in ways that help both society and those that commit the crimes. Imprisonment has historically been the popular solution. However, there are many instances in which people are sent to prison that would be better served for community service, rehab, or some other form of punishment. Prison affects more than just the prisoner; the families, friends, employers, and communities of the incarcerated also pay a price. Prison as a punishment has its pros and cons; although it may be necessary for some, it can be harmful for those who would be better suited for alternative means of punishment. What are prisons for? This is a question that must be asked in order to understand the problems facing prisons. Prisons serve two main functions; separation and rehabilitation. Criminals cannot be allowed to walk around with everyone else without being punished; they must be separated from society. The thought of going to prison helps deter most people from crime. Rehabilitation is the main goal of prison; making a bad person into a good person by the time they are released. These seem like cut and dry functions, but as of late some believe that prisons in the United States have failed in their attempts to separate and rehabilitate. Not only do prisons separate the criminals from the innocent, to be effective, according to Lappin and Greene, they must also separate the criminals from the worse criminals. Convicts in prison for non-violent offenses are not supposed to be housed with violent offenders. “Unfortunately, our prisons are becoming more and more overcrowded making it harder to make these separations. The result is that non violent people become violent due to over-exposure to violent people” (Lappin, H. G., & Greene, J., 2006). “In 2007, one percent of American adults were in prison, which is by far the highest incarceration rate in the world.”( Trachtenberg, B., 2009). Why? Trachtenberg believes it’s because prisons do not rehabilitate people. A violent criminal is sent to prison because he is a threat to society. He is supposed to serve a lengthy term so that he will learn his lesson and become a productive member of society. During his time there he is supposed to learn to appreciate work by cooking, doing laundry, or some other prison job. While he is there he can receive his GED so that he can get a job when he gets out. This plan has good intentions but it has been proven to be ineffective. First off, the time this violent offender is supposed to serve will most likely be cut short due to overcrowding. “Prisons in America today are operating with a population between 117% and 137% of their intended capacity”( Muhlhausen, D. B., Dyer, C. C., McDonough, J. R., et al., 2006). Even though budget cuts are forcing prisons to be closed, all the prisoners in those prisons cannot be released; they have to be crammed into the remaining prisons to the point where there is simply no more room. Obviously there will always be people breaking the law, so just because the prisons are full does not mean that there are not new people who need to be brought in. Therefore, if 50 prisoners are brought in that means 50 prisoners must be let go. Many of those who are let go are getting out far too early. Secondly, “work in prisons is a part of rehabilitation and a primary activity.”(Shaw, V. N.,1998). Work is intended to give the prisoners a sense of purpose, give them an appreciation for work, and teach them social skills. These are all good things but most prison work doesn’t do any of this. Inmates share job responsibilities with hundreds of other inmates, and they do not have to work hard at all. If anything prison work gives prisoners bad work habits. Thirdly, education in prisons needs to be a requirement. It should come as no surprise that many people in prison did not graduate high school. “Almost all prisons offer inmates a chance to get a GED but many prisoners are released without having received one”(Muhlhausen, D. B., Dyer, C. C., McDonough, J. R., Nadlemann, E., & Walters, R., 2006). In today’s economy it is difficult to find a job. Without a GED it is almost impossible, and an ex-convict without a job is bound to end up right back in prison. The single largest indicator that rehabilitation in prisons has failed is recidivism (people returning to prison after being let out). Some people are in and out of jail their entire life, yet it is not 100% their fault. About two thirds of those released from prison this year will re-offend and be back in prison within 3 years. Not only do we have the highest incarceration rate in the world we also have the highest recidivism rate; we must be doing something wrong. Not only are people being released from prison without having been rehabilitated, but they are not being given any help to get their life in order. An ex-con cannot hold certain jobs, the ones they can have, do not want them because they are ex-cons. “It is illegal to deny someone a job because of their criminal record but once an employer learns of an ex-cons background they usually find another reason not to hire that person” (Etzioni, A., 2004) Ex-cons for the most part are not good employees; they are lazy and are frequently late for work. In prison, inmates do not have to plan out their own day. They are told what, when, and where to do everything. They are not given any responsibility. Therefore, after years of incarceration, ex-cons have a hard time adjusting to life on the outside. They have to plan out their day on their own for the first time in years, and many of them end up being late for work or not showing up at all on a regular basis. The families and communities of convicts bear a heavy burden. In many cases criminals have drug or alcohol problems. “When the criminals are taken away their families no longer have to support their habits, but they also lose a source of income, and the ability to receive some forms of public assistance.”(Greenfield, L., 2009) Many criminals do not have jobs, but the ones that do put their employers in bad situation when they are abruptly taken away. Prisons breed violence. Inmates that are incarcerated for non-violent offenses often turn into violent people during their stay. When convicts leave prison, they and their families are faced with a new set of problems. Ex-cons have a hard time finding legitimate work, but they need money to support themselves and their family. This often leads them back to drugs, alcohol, and crime. “Ex-cons tend to hang out together in their neighborhood deterring outsiders from local business and shops, putting strain on the economy of the area.”(Clear, T. R., Rose, D. R., & Ryder, J. R., 2001)With the high rate of recidivism, areas with high concentrations of criminals seem to have and endless cycle in and out of prison. Children in these communities lack any positive role models, giving them a low self-esteem, resulting in drug use, which results in crime, which results in the next generation of convicts from that neighborhood. “Though a growing number of jurisdictions are taking reentry initiatives, there are significant challenges ahead that can only be overcome through long term collaborations and community support.” (Flynn-Jones, E. J., 2008)
What can we do to better rehabilitate prisoners and reduce that rate of recidivism? Corrections officials have been working toward an answer to that question for years. Unfortunately, most of their ideas get thrown out by government officials who think these plans cost too much. Corrections is the largest part of every state budget. During these bad economic times, states have looked to the corrections budget for a majority of their budget cuts. Prisons all over the country have been closing in an effort to save money. Other cutbacks have been made on alternative means of punishment. These cuts intended to save money in the short term are turning out to be more expensive in the long term. Prisons cost a lot of money to operate, especially an over-crowded one. An over-crowded prison with a poor rehabilitation plan is essentially inviting a majority of its inmates to return in a few years. Prisons would cost much less money and be much less packed if inmates were not returning for their second, third, fourth, or fifth time. To truly save money, states need to open more prisons, and implement better rehabilitation programs. The best option would be to convert the old closed prisons into labor camps. Labor camps can perform a variety of services that can actually turn a profit for the state. Some jobs are done by each individual in their cell, while others are done in workshops, large factories, mine fields, and farms. The self worth and job training the inmates get from work camps promotes good behavior when they get out. Some ex-cons of the bigger work camps that are very good at their jobs get hired by the work camps as permanent staff when they are released. “Sometimes, because of their job skills, companies in the industry that compete with the work camps hire the ex-cons and give them high paying careers” (Shaw, 1998). Institutions like this have been proven to rehabilitate their prisoners much more effectively than prisons do. The best part about them is that the inmates turn out a product that the camp can sell. The profits from the products pay for the operating of the camp and if they are run efficiently enough the camps can contribute money to the state. Today’s prisons are not perfect but they still serve their social purpose which is keeping the public safe. The most dangerous people on earth are behind bars where they can’t hurt any more innocent people. In fact, the physical presence of a prison in a community has been shown to do good for the community. Residents in communities that host prisons feel that the prison contributes to the economy. They do not feel that the prison makes them unsafe or that it physically looks bad (Young, M. G., 1998). In conclusion, prisons are necessary punitive institutions in that remove criminals from society. The problems facing prisons will not be solved until the economy improves and government officials approve the re-opening of prisons and the expansion of rehabilitation programs. There must reform of reentry policies giving ex-cons more help finding jobs and their families more support during the incarceration and after their release.
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