Our Failing Prison System
"What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails
That's the disturbing lead sentence of "Confronting Confinement,"
the newly released report of the Vera Institute of Justice's Commission on Safety
and Abuse in American Prisons.
Many of us are sure to despise the finding. Isn't the overriding reason for
jails and prisons to lock up the bad guys and protect the rest of us? Aren't
we the country that decided, beginning 30 years ago, to substitute punishment
for rehabilitation? Haven't we demonstrated our toughness by imprisoning 2.2
million people — the most of any nation on Earth? And pumping up our prison
and jail expenditures to a stunning $60 billion a year?
So now you're telling us that bad stuff is seeping out of jails and prisons
and back into our neighborhoods, cities, towns?
Overcrowding is so rampant in the burgeoning California prison system that
a high-ranking corrections official is warning: "We believe that an imminent
and substantial threat to the public safety exists, requiring immediate action."
The New York City-based Vera Institute's panel, headed by former U.S. Attorney
General Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, with former judges, corrections officials
and prisoner rights advocates, cites many more perils.
First and foremost, there's violence — widespread patterns of individual
assaults, including gang violence, rape and beatings by guards. Can we expect
inmates subjected to that culture to abstain from it when they're released?
Indeed, if prison guards spend their days in that kind of culture, the potential
for acting the same to their families, or in other outside-the-bars incidents,
is real. "When people live and work in facilities that are unsafe, unhealthy,
unproductive, or inhumane, they carry the effects home with them," warns
The perils are compounded by the decision to segregate difficult or mentally
ill prisoners — a practice growing fast in the past decade. Segregation
is usually counterproductive, the Vera commission reports — it triggers
violence inside prison walls and recidivism among segregated convicts when they're
Then there's medical care. High rates of disease and illness among prisoners,
coupled with inadequate funding for correctional health care, endanger all parties
— prisoners, staff and the public. Every year, about 1.5 million people
are released from jail or prison carrying such life-threatening diseases as
tuberculosis, hepatitis C and AIDS. Correctional systems, obliged to operate
on shoestring budgets for medical care, "are set up to fail" —
in some instances there are just two or three doctors for 4,000 to 5,000 inmates.
The "cures" for all these conditions are clear. Reduced crowding
— indeed, limits on prisoner numbers in any institution — leads
the list. Second, a return to rehabilitation — basic literacy and skills
training — on the sure knowledge that high numbers of prisoners (currently
about 60 percent) will commit offenses and be reincarcerated if they're not
prepared for civilian life.
Third, use force and non-lethal weaponry far more sparingly — constant
and excessive force only begets violence. And fourth, upgrade medical care radically,
including much better screening for infectious diseases, partnering with community
health-care providers, providing treatment for mentally ill prisoners, and persuading
Congress to extend Medicaid and Medicare benefits to prisoners.
Why would federal and state legislators approve such changes? The answer: Unless
they do, violence to family members and others, plus illness and desperation,
will keep rippling out each time an inmate heads home, as 95 percent do.
Even in the absence of the sweeping reforms the criminal justice system cries
out for — especially terminating our horrendously failed and harmful "war
on drugs," plus scrapping mandatory minimum sentences in favor of radically
expanded sentencing discretion by judges — the ideas of the Vera Institute's
panel represent a worthwhile start.
Congress is at least considering a "Second Chance Act" for easing
prisoner re-entry into society, including modest proposals to encourage job
openings, housing, substance-abuse and mental-health treatment. It enjoys sponsors
ranging from conservative to liberal lawmakers and backers from the National
Council of La Raza to the Christian Coalition.
Could we be ready for an outbreak of corrections sanity? With our 2.2 million
men and women behind bars and the explosive conditions in many of our prisons,
the old "pay me now or pay me later" adage has never been more compelling.
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial
pages of The Times. Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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