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Our Failure of a Prison System

The Vera Institute has completed a bipartisan report on our prison system for Congress. 13.5 million people are jailed each year. On any particular day, more than 2.2 million people are locked behind bars. The cost for all this is a staggering $60 billion per year. Not only are our prisons failing them, so is the American public. And while violent crime has dropped, we are not any safer.

"We should be astonished by the size of the prisoner population, troubled by the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos, and saddened by the waste of human potential," the panel said in a report to be presented to Congress on Thursday.

Among its findings:

The report gives credit to the best corrections professionals, but finds too much violence and too little medical and mental health care, as well as a "desperate need for the kinds of productive activities that discourage violence and make rehabilitation possible."

The violence experienced by inmates in prison stays with them after release:

The commission's principal conviction is that prison life is relevant far beyond the fences and walls of the nearly 5,000 adult places of incarceration in the United States. Violence, overcrowding and poor services -- from medical care to literacy programs -- ripple outward when an inmate heads home, as 95 percent do.

"What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons," the commission concluded. When things do not work out, the group found, the effects are felt in higher crime, higher taxes and heightened dismay. Sixty percent of the nation's inmates commit another crime. Even modest improvements in medical care and attention could significantly reduce recidivism, the panel said.

One thing that mitigates against re-offending is the strength of the prisoner's connection to his family:

To that end, one commission member said that institutions should lower the cost of telephone calls, expand visiting rooms to accommodate families, and offer counseling to inmates' relatives.

Other recommendations:

The commission is asking Congress to develop uniform data-reporting requirements and to extend Medicaid and Medicare, without co-payments, to eligible inmates. Crowding should be reduced, and programs that foster productivity and purpose should be expanded, it said.

The report is titled "Containing Confinement."

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  • Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#1)
    by Wes on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 02:30:42 AM EST
    Seven tenths of a percent of America is behind bars. That doesn't sound like much, right? Well, that is actually more than 2 million people. And get this: prisoners in China are only .118 percent of the total population, while Brazil locks up only .183 percent of its citizens. The data comes from the International Centre for Prison Studies via the BBC's in depth report on prison life. Here is the full chart.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#2)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 04:26:01 AM EST
    One only has to go through it to discover the Shawshank Redemption.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#3)
    by kdog on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 06:00:38 AM EST
    No way all 2 million are beyond redemption. Our society is far to liberal in our caging practices. I feel humans belong in cages only as a last resort. I'd say a good percentage of our prison population could be dealt with in more humane, and economically sound ways. I think of my old man who did 2 years for being to drunk to run from a bar fight. He didn't deserve a cage, nor do hundreds of thousands of others...if not millions.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#4)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 07:44:29 AM EST
    Readers interested in reading the report may download it from the web site of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons at http://www.prisoncommission.org/report

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#5)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 08:54:54 AM EST
    "And while violent crime has dropped, we are not any safer." How is this reconciled? This, from the report, would be laughable if it wasn't said with a straight face: "..Sixty percent of the nation's inmates commit another crime. Even modest improvements in medical care and attention could significantly reduce recidivism, the panel said.." How does medical care in prison make an individual less violent upon release? How does "more attention" (I think 24-hour monitoring is about as much attention as one can get) make them less likely to commit more crime? To me, the above is an arguement against expanding rehabilitation programs. Unfortunately, the timing of this report couldn't be worse. The arrest of Jerry Innman, the so-called "Bikini Strangler" will probably turn public opinion even further from rehabilitation. Previously incarcerated for rape, kidnapping, aggrevated assault, etc, Innman was paroled after serving 15 years of a 30 year sentence in September. His confession to this crime and 2 others will most likely precipitate an even stronger crackdown on violent sex offenders - as it should.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#6)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 09:14:25 AM EST
    Wes. Thanks for the link.
    More than 2.1 million people are in jail in the US at any one time; that is about one in 140 Americans, or as many people as live in Namibia, or nearly five Luxembourgs - and it is a number that continues to rise. One of the biggest drivers of the expanding population are the tough policies brought in over the last 20 years to tackle high crime rates - like the "three strikes" laws that hand out long, mandatory sentences to repeat offenders. They are tactics the US government says are working - as recent figures have shown violent crime and murder falling. But critics say that such policies have skewed the US system away from rehabilitation, storing up problems for the future.
    But the roots of the problem may be closer to home, as suggested by words attributed to former Pennsylvania prison guard Charles Graner - ringleader of the Abu Ghraib abuses - which came out during court testimony. "The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.'" No one would suggest Graner represents of the vast majority of prison officers. But Alexander Busansky, executive director of the CSAAP, told the BBC the US public was largely ignorant of the real state of America's prisons.


    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#7)
    by Dadler on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 09:40:50 AM EST
    Croc, Let me see, crappy medical care in prison can 1) leave a released prisoner MORE bitter and angry, as well as 2) leave them highly infected and/or contagious with disease, infection, virus, whatever. Also, and this is a pretty big point, the United States locks up 6 TIMES AS MANY PEOPLE AS CHINA, with a population maybe a third of it. Now, I'll anticipate a marginally savvy response, which might be "Well, the Chinese execute so many people, that it has to be a huge deterrent". My answer would still be, 6 times more people in jail than a fully totalitarian state...is a miserable, pitiful, sad disgrace to our nation. Peace.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#8)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 10:06:04 AM EST
    Thankfully I'm not a criminologist so I'm not exactly qualified to answer why we incarcerate 6 times as many individuals as China. I would suspect the violent crime rates in China are lower than they are in the US (with freedom comes many things, I suppose). In fact, a quick search reveals the estimated number of murders and violent crime in China during 2004 to be 25,000 and 554,000, respectively. In the US for the same year the figures are 16,000 and 1.3 million (again, respectively). Even quicker math tells me that one is 4 times more likely to be murdered and 16 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in the US. Given this, wouldn't we expect greater rates of incarceration?

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#9)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 10:30:51 AM EST
    croc_choda, If you think "liberty" is the cause, then you must think the only solution is fascism. Many agree with that.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#10)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 10:45:43 AM EST
    Oh no, I don't think fascism is the solution (but thanks for putting words in my mouth!). The solution is life imprisonment for repeat violent offenders and an overhaul of the parole system. Look at Innman: out on parole for multiple violent crimes (including rape) he admits to raping and killing one and attempting to rape another. Sadly, this is not the first time violent sex offenders violate again after release. With the exception of juveniles, prison should serve as punishment from anti-social behavior. A 30-year old who breaks into a home only to attack and rapes the occupant is not a candidate for rehabilitation. A 14-year old shoplifter is a child gone astray. Failing to recognize the difference between the two is a fundamental problem.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#11)
    by kdog on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 11:01:05 AM EST
    Failing to recognize the difference between the two is a fundamental problem
    Indeed. A person goes to prison a petty drug dealer and comes out a stone cold killer. No one is served by this.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#12)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 11:04:36 AM EST
    This is one of the threads that makes me think this is a humor site. Who here really believes there are fewer people in the Chinese prison system than in america? I am willing to bet there are more Chinese in prisons than in the most of the rest of the world combined. If you look at the entire chart You'll notice the chinese authorities have not included the number of unsetenced prisoners. I would guess chinses authorities also do not include the numbers of political prisoners (Tibetans, Falun Gong, dissendents, etc.) as they are not in the same class as everday criminal prisoners. Actually If you go by wes' chart, we in the west would be remiss to allow illegals from china or mexico to stay here as they have a greater chance to end up in prison here than in their home countries. If you look here they put the number on chinese in prison at 10 million.
    At the heart of this system lies the laogai--a secret network of prison labor camps where more than 10 million Chinese, many of whom can be classified as political prisoners, are forced to labor in factories, mines, and agricultural plantations, producing goods that enhance the economic viability of the Leninist autocracy by relieving the state of the need to subsidize its fearsome penal system.
    Flame away!

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#13)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 11:05:46 AM EST
    Hilarious. A total lack of self-responsibility. It's never the criminal's fault - it's the environment. A cold blooded killer is a cold blooded killer because they choose to be. Get outta town with that silly ass talk.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#14)
    by Dadler on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 11:14:46 AM EST
    Croc, I'm citing stats linked by Wes at the top of the thread. What logical process are you using to connect "freedom" with an increased level of violent crime or crime in general? You think Somalia is crime free right now? Or Haiti? An individual making a choice to commit a crime requires no freedom at all other than will (hell, you can steal and kill in prison). A free and civil society, however, that should produce LESS crime, but is instead producing more and an increased prison population, might, logic tells me, require MORE freedom and civility that it currently believes it possesses. And ask yourself WHY would America accept and tolerate such a violent crime and murder rate? Why are you so rhetorically comfortable with considering it just a messy by-product of freedom? Especially, my friend, since MOST murders and violent crimes are NEVER solved. Shouldn't we be focusing on the causes as much as the effects of prison?

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#15)
    by kdog on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 11:24:15 AM EST
    A cold blooded killer is a cold blooded killer because they choose to be.
    When you're in prison dodging shanks and rape...there is no choice. You become a killer or you get killed...or worse. You don't forget years of necessary survival skills in prison the second they open the gate. You take it with you out on the street.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#16)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 11:28:10 AM EST
    You're right. It is impossible to defend Inman and no one will try (except his attorney, as it should be). By fascism I mean as listed in "The Oxford Companion to Philosophy": "Fascism has presented itself as a tempting conclusion from three apparently plausible premisses: the relativity of values to a culture; the rootedness of culture in the social life of a nation; and the role of the state as the upholder of values." You have to admit much of the nation leans that way. What makes the reaction pseudo-fascist is the reaction, as you articulate. 1. rehabilitation does not work. For one, no one knows, and no one cares, if any rehabilitation was attempted at all while he was in prison. Many studies show prison makes too many inmates more dangerous. Also, there is the equation of this offense with all offenders, violent or not. 2. Florida already had severe laws including a civil commitment law. Hence, if they were enforced, this may have been prevented. I searched for a discussion of this, and if he got any therapy, but found nothing so far in the 1,156 related articles. That is not to imply he could have been rehiblitated, but is only to suggest we can't know if no one tried, which might put others at risk in the future. If no one can rehabilitated, why try? That's an unhealthy stance. 3. Punishing all equally for the crimes of the few. In any case, horrors like this and the equation to all criminals (the fallacy of the part equals the whole) does not bode well for reformers. Much better if that poor women killed him instead. I, for one, could have clapped with joy.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#17)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 11:30:45 AM EST
    That was a reply to croc.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#18)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 11:39:03 AM EST
    Another question, croc. Why is the violent crime rate, and therefore the incarceration rate, so much lower, drastically lower, in countries that are least fascist (most liberal)?

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#19)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 12:35:50 PM EST
    The crux of the matter is not the ammount of violent criminals in jail, for no matter in which country they were domiciled, they would be still be in jail. The basic problem lies in a justice system that uses jail time as a first option. It is not by accident that figures are so high, it is by design. I have no idea of the figures, but I wonder if the system of having elected judges doesn't play some part in this "get tough" sentencing. Probably not so much in urban areas, but in the sticks I wouldn't want to bet the farm on getting a fair deal if the judge was up for reelection. Having said that, it is probably only a minor contributing factor. Mandatory minimum sentencing is an abomination, as is "three strikes" Did I not read shortly after three strikes came into effect a man ended up receiving a life sentence for stealing a slice of pizza?

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#20)
    by Patrick on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 01:00:21 PM EST
    2 million in jail and prison. I read that as combined. I get the feeling some people are not getting the distinction. FWIW.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#21)
    by roy on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 01:06:56 PM EST
    Oscar,
    Did I not read shortly after three strikes came into effect a man ended up receiving a life sentence for stealing a slice of pizza?
    His "mandatory" sentence was reduced by a judge. Wikipedia's writeup is consistent with my fuzzy memories on the subject:
    Jerry Dewayne Williams is a convicted felon, most famous for initially receiving a 25 years to life prison sentence in March 1995, for the theft of a slice of pepperoni pizza, but was released in 1998. ... Williams' sentence was later reduced due to a provision which allows courts to bypass mandatory sentencing laws if it promotes the interest of justice.


    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#22)
    by cpinva on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 04:45:34 PM EST
    there's a perfectly simple way to eliminate this problem: make everything a capital crime, punishable by death. set up one facility in each state, to serve as the central execution site, and turn the rest into low income housing. there ya go, two problems solved. glad i could help. * snark warning!

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#23)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 06:38:59 AM EST
    The U.S. Department of Justice Statisticians established the following percentages of prisoners in the nation's prisons and jails. "About 26% were being held for a violent offense; 27% for a property offense; 22% for a drug offense; and 24% for a public-order offense. More than half had previously served time in a jail or prison; nearly two-thirds had been on probation." Of the two million prisoners in jail or prison, roughly a fourth are in prison for violent crime and should be kept there, that 500,000 are a dangerous threat to injure or kill. Roughly a fourth steals or damages property, so 500,000 are a threat to our property. So now we have one million who pose some threat to society. Do we have enough prison beds to ensure that these threatening individuals are kept for their entire sentence? The answer is NO, because half of the prison beds are filled with drug offenders and public order violators. We have enough prison beds, what we don't have is enough sense to incarcerate the people we are afraid of instead of the people we are mad at. If you have two dogs, one is bad and prone to bite, the other jumps up on you and will not mind, but you have only one cage, which one do you cage. If both are crammed together in a cage built for one, one may be injured or killed or at least learn to bite and now you may wind up with two dogs that need caged. Did you accomplish the goals of punishment; deterrence, retribution and incapacitation, because you cannot imply rehabilitation was a goal when caging was the objective? You will have accomplished what America has accomplished in 20 years, doubled the number of cages needed.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#24)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 06:52:51 AM EST
    One year alone in California 16 either New or Additional or refurbished Prisons were built in one year compared to One New School.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#25)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 08:06:42 AM EST
    and reduced his sentence from 25 to six years.
    Well that's OK then.
    2 million in jail and prison. I read that as combined. I get the feeling some people are not getting the distinction. FWIW.
    Jail,prison, the Hilton; locked up is locked up. FWIW ?
    because you cannot imply rehabilitation was a goal when caging was the objective? You will have accomplished what America has accomplished in 20 years, doubled the number of cages needed.
    No you can't. Nor am I so niave to think that a good proportion could ever be rehabilitated. Nor am I naive enough to think offenders that are locked away for minor crimes don't come out scarred for life and as such become totally antiestablishment and thoroughly antisocial.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#26)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 10:43:04 AM EST
    FWIW, I am not speaking from some abstract idea of who is in prison today, I have just finsihed serving 16 years in federal prison and the vast majority just want to do there time and get back to their families, they have learned their lesson. Prison is not the big scary place you perceive, it is confinement on a very drab military base with bad food and a hard bed.

    Re: Our Failure of a Prison System (none / 0) (#27)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Jun 26, 2006 at 02:33:27 PM EST
    Well Barry Ward, 16 years in a federal prison would be considered a walk in the park when compared to some state institutions. But lock is still lock up and if a person learns from it I say good on them. It was almost 50 years ago when I was first locked up and for 44 years I've been a model citizen. I can assure you it was not because of their rehabilitation program, of which there was none. Still to this day I cannot get the state I live in to treat me as an equal citizen. This bothers me. I feel the reason many repeat crimes and retun to a life of incarcerateion is because they are never really accepted back to society. Not all, but many don't want to take the time to prove themselves useful to their communities, when most communities could care less if they succeed or not. Until that mind set is changed prisons will continue to expand as the populations expand.