How Cruel and Unusual Defines the US Prison System – Part One

After writing this post a couple weeks ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about a far more encompassing problem. The entire US prison system appalls me. I know some of you are ready to jump all over that statement with, “what most of the criminals in US prisons have done appalls me.” Well, now that I have taken that away from you, listen up. Compared to most of the industrialized world, the US prison system fails. I don’t want to hear about gulags or Chinese or Middle Eastern prisons. Do we really want to compare ourselves to those countries? I mean, what does it say about our prison system if those provide the best examples for why our system works so well or treats prisoners so fairly? Let me get to the point. Capital punishment only scratches the surface. Cruel and unusual describes most of the goings on in the US prison system. Some prisons actually work towards and think they are helping, even rehabilitating their inmates, but those prisoners, more often than not, set their inmates up for failure, perhaps an even harder fall, upon release.


I have heard and read a lot of prison horror stories in my life, from a Social Problems course my freshman year of college to an NPR report I heard earlier this year on the medical treatment of prisoners. But it was a seemingly harmless news story that finally pushed me to writing this post. I have an uncle, whom I admire and respect greatly for his political, cultural, and religious views. The man has had a life full of experiences that make his advice profitable. On a social media site, he posted a link to this news story, which addresses the issue of prison budgets and the rehabilitation of prisoners. Essentially, inmates at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility in Mount Pleasant, IA grow a lot of their own food in a garden. Brittany Lewis, the reporter, sums up the story nicely in one sentence: “In addition to helping to rehabilitate prisoners, the garden is helping the correctional facility’s budget.” But easing prison budgets and rehabilitating prisoners is never that easy. With his post, my uncle made the following comment:

“The story says that the inmate labor helps the prison budget. It also says that they get to learn a new skill. From my long-ago days as a correctional officer in Joliet [Illinois] I can assure you of two things: 1) Inmates don’t care even a little about the prison budget, and 2) The prison doesn’t care even a little about new skills. At Statesville in Joliet they had a training program for barbers, and people would think, ‘How wonderful! They learn to cut hair, they have a skill that transfers to the outside. . .’ Then real life interferes: 49 of the 50 states have licensing requirements for barbers, and 46 of the 49 require a clean criminal record for the license. One thing that not a lot of folks at Statesville have is a clean criminal record. There is really only one type of training in prison that has been truly effective: inmates come in as unskilled criminals, and they leave as skilled criminals.” – Rick Crowell, former corrections officer, Illinois Department of Corrections

Rick’s comments ring as true as ever today, where a growing for-profit prison system that only cares about saving money cares less and less about the humans which taxpayers pay them to take care of. Skills are nice, but as Rick suggests, rehabilitation takes more than teaching skills, especially when there are so many competing skills behind prison walls, and recidivism rates in the US back that up. Crimeinamerica.net posted a 2010 story, which followed studies on recidivism, following up in 2002 with prisoners released in 1994. The most comprehensive study (with results due out the following year), conducted by the Pew Center on the States, concluded that “within three years, 52 percent of the 272,111 released prisoners were back in prison.” USA Today published a 2011 story on the full results of the study, showing the same conclusions. Ultimately, prison, in at least 41 states, has become less and less of a deterrent. But I would argue that prison-as-deterrent is not the problem. As Rick points out above, even non-idle hands can be the Devil’s tools. I will go a step further. Even the lack of useable, transferrable skills is not the real problem. I contend that the main reason behind the high recidivism in the US rests almost solely with the way we treat prisoners.

In my follow up to this post, I will address some of those specifics, which include medical care and living conditions. In preparation for it and the responses I will likely receive, I will conclude, here, with the following radical concept. We need to, first, stop putting people in cages. If you treat people like animals, they will behave like animals. So what is the solution? Stay tuned.

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