A Broken System

by Tim Mosso | 4/28/05 5:00am

If "three strikes" were a universal rule, the United States' prison systems would be serving hard time. The latest U.S. government statistics reveal monstrous growth rates in U.S. jails and high rates of recidivism. Amid these grim revelations, U.S. prisons continue to foster environments in which commonplace violence, squalor and subpar rehabilitation programs offer few opportunities for inmates to reform. Despite falling crime rates, the U.S. prison population has swelled to shadow-state proportions. Over 2.1 million inmates, half of them nonviolent offenders often linked to low-level drug charges, live in a parallel and dystopic version of the United States. U.S. prisons' internal cultures are highly variable and rarely subject to competent oversight.

A federal commission charged with suggesting prison reforms recently disclosed that only three states actually have independent oversight mechanisms to study prison conditions, and these bodies lack the ability to implement reforms. The training of prison guards is of variable quality. The growth of prisons run by private contractors has dealt blows to prison guard unions and reduced guards' average training. The commission further revealed the occurrence of over one million recorded instances of sexual assault by inmates against other inmates over the last two decades. Other types of physical assault by inmates against other inmates occur on a daily basis and number in the tens of thousands per year. It should come as no surprise that the antisocial "culture" forged in this crucible of chaos does little more than prepare inmates to return to prison.

High recidivism rates attest to the failure of the U.S. prison system. According to government crime statistics, almost 70 percent of inmates will be arrested within three years of their release. This level of repeat offenses calls into question the purpose of the prison system. If the purpose is to torment offenders in between convictions, then the mission truly has been accomplished. Unfortunately, this outcome is merely a byproduct of a system whose ostensible goal is rehabilitate offenders. In many states, prisons offer virtually no re-socialization programs or post-release support to prisoners. Federal statistics reveal that the large percentage of prisoners with a history of drug abuse leave prison with little or no treatment. In addition, many states erect barriers to employment that condemn released inmates to desperation. Education, job licensing and access to public housing are among the resources that are frequently denied to prisoners upon their release. The unabated growth of prisons raises questions about U.S. national priorities. In 1982, taxes amounting to $9 billion were committed to the prison system. By the turn of the century, that figure had risen to almost $60 billion.

While it is true that violent crime rates have fallen in recent years, the vast majority of new prisoners have been convicted of nonviolent crimes, including theft and drug abuse. This fact, combined with the high rate of recidivism, suggests that prisons are simply being used as an alternative to confronting basic societal problems of inequality and poverty. To be sure, the U.S. prison population is anything but a representative cross section of American society. Sixty-one percent of prisoners in U.S. facilities are racial or ethnic minorities. Prisoners held under the authority of various immigration agencies now number over 24,000, and this branch of the prison system is being treated as a coveted growth sector by the private prison contractors. It is clear that members of traditionally disadvantaged groups are most likely to be subjected to the intolerable conditions of the prison system. Unequal access to legal representation is certainly a problem in America, but what happens after the courtroom is no less a symptom of flawed social priorities.

Prisons have become a proxy for the country's conscience. Many states have decided that the best option is to send their prisoners out of state to the vast and growing prison networks of the southwest. In Arizona and Texas, among other states, there exist towns with more inmates than free citizens. In an effort to save money, corner-cutting private prisons are being built and run for states by entrepreneurs. Instead of meeting the source of drug dependency and economic inequality head on, we create vast walled cities to store our mistakes out of sight.

The 80s and 90s saw the rise of a cottage industry of pundits who made good livings trying to convince the American public that federal prisons are exactly like resorts. The fact that this idea could even take root is a testament to the lack of public awareness of the U.S. prison system's brutal realities. Not since the era of forced sterilization has indifference to prison populations been greater.

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