Prison Reform

There are now over 2,200,000 persons incarcerated in the United States, a number which has doubled in the past 25 years.  The United States has 25% of the world's prison population and only 6% of the world's inhabitants. Almost half of the nation's prison population consists of black males. The cost of incarceration can run from $15,000 to over $40,000 per prisoner annually.   For every inmate in state prisons, at least one potential student is denied the opportunity to attend state colleges or universities because of declining state support for higher education programs. About half of the inmates are incarcerated for non-violent crimes: about one-third of the total have mental illness or other psychological conditions.  A substantial number of non-violent prisoners are incarcerated for drug use or drug-related offenses.  It is ironic that states are willing to spend more than twice as much to incarcerate offenders than to implement preventive programs such as housing, work training, job placement, and mental health treatment programs to alleviate the adverse consequences of human deprivation and degradation.  Judges in Ohio and possibly elsewhere have deliberately incarcerated mentally ill offenders because there are no adequate government treatment programs outside of prisons for treatment of their illnesses. Unfortunately, many of the mentally ill offenders return again and again to prison after they are released because of the lack of outpatient mental health and other remedial social services where they live.

Many states now spend substantially more for their prisons than for their colleges and universities.  Furthermore, many prisoners initially incarcerated for non-violent crimes are transformed into violent repeat criminals as the result of the brutal treatment experienced during their first prison terms.  The simple facts are that prisons are not achieving correction and rehabilitation, require extraordinary levels of funding to the detriment of other state programs, and often produce more violent criminals than were initially admitted into the prison environment. They have become universities of crime, not of correction.  Supermax prisons are horrors of bestiality, where prisoners are confined in their cells for 23 hours daily with little or no human contact except during the daily hour exercise period.  If not mentally ill before confinement, such treatment in Supermax and maximum security prisons is likely to make its victims permanently mentally ill as its consequence. Fortunately, there is at last overdue recognition of the horrors of solitary confinement and reforms are being made to greatly restrict or end this abusive and inhumane treatment in some states.  It must be rapidly adopted everywhere in the USA without further delay.

As a nominally mostly Christian nation, the failure to address and rectify the problems with the criminal justice, incarceration, and social support systems for released prisoners in the United States is our most heinous national disgrace.  Not only is it immoral, it is just plain stupid: if the prisons in Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia, could achieve an 80% success (non-recidivism) rate 200 years ago, why can't this United States do as well now?  We know what works: rehabilitation, job training, guaranteed employment, support during reentry into society, etc are not new concepts. Work camps for non-violent offenders such as described for illegal entrants in the Border Security issue should be seriously considered as an alternative to prison confinement and exposure to violent criminals.  Post-release employment, social, and health support programs are critical to the successful reentry of released prisoners and must be given the same level of attention and funding as incarceration.  For Supermax and other prisoners with life sentences, voluntary permanent exile to designated islands in the Pacific Ocean under U. S. jurisdiction should be considered where they could live their lives until reaching age 80 in an open air environment secluded from mainland society or the nonviolent should be paroled to live in appropriate housing.  Finally, decriminalization and legalization of small quantities of marijuana under strict control such as alcohol and cigarettes are now regulated will greatly reduce prosecution and incarceration of users.  Colorado, Washington, and other states have now undertaken this long overdue legislation and other states are now considering this reform. A joint Congressional commission to investigate, identify, and recommend major changes to our criminal justice system is urgently needed to consider these ideas and other proposals for prison reform.

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