America’s prison system is one based on antiquated ideas of punishment. The 1990’s saw the President of America becoming tough on crime, but it was carried out in all the wrong ways. America was so caught up in the idea of delivering “justice,” it forgot that it would affect people, then society as a whole. America is now seeing the effects of this brash, hidebound, ill-considered venture. The fallout from these actions does not occur in a vacuum; they affect real people. America’s narrow-minded sense of justice forgot to distinguish evil from criminal. Many men and women will be released each year, most of them will be poor minorities who will likely return to the environments and economic conditions in which they lived before. This only helps the income gaps expand further. An answer may lie in education.
To some this initiative has already begun, but with a few discrepancies. Very few institutions offer college-accredited associate’s and bachelor’s degrees courses. Most of the few institutions that offer post-secondary education have the courses focus on specific job training and vocational training. Though this is a start, it does not solve the whole picture.
The facts speak for themselves. America is number one in the world in longest average prison sentencing. “More than half of all inmates in the United States serve maximum sentences of less than eight years, and many are released well before their sentences are completed” (Forbes). We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. America contains 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. Felons cannot receive welfare, student loans, public housing, or food stamps. Ex-felons often become alienated from social structures, family structures, and often times have trouble finding work due to their conviction, in an already competitive job market.
The long prison sentencing creates institutionalism in prisoners, which thoroughly changes their ability to interact in society. For most, after prison, all they know is the prison. Long sentencing combined with the inability to receive benefits, and the social alienation, is why the United States has the highest rate of recidivism in the world. In a study titled Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010; researcher’s tracked 404,638 prisons in 30 states after release in 2005. After three years from release two-thirds (67.8 percent) of the prisoners were rearrested. Rearrests of the ex-prisoners climbed to about three-quarters (76.6 percent) after five years. Out of the prisoners who were arrested more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested near the end of the first year of release. In terms of demographics on specific offenders: property offenders ranked most likely to be rearrested with 82.1 percent of released property offenders being rearrested; drug offenders at 76.1 percent; public order offenders at 73.6 percent; violent offenders at 71.3 percent rearrest. Forty percent of all inmates released in New York State will be re-incarcerated within three years.
To look for solutions, America could reference Europe’s tactics and attitudes. In European countries like Germany and the Netherlands, the length of prison sentencing is much lower. Ninety percent of Dutch and 75 percent of German sentences are 12 months or less. In addition to shorter sentencing, European systems favor imprisonment as the last possible resort, favoring less aggressive and expensive measures such as fines, probation, community service programs, etc. Incarceration rates in Germany and the Netherlands are almost one-tenth of America’s. These two factors help contribute to significantly lower rates of recidivism. This will offset the cost of keeping prisoners each year. Their main focus is not only to ensure improvement by separation, but also effective reintegration with select programs. “Under German law, the primary goal of prison is ‘to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release’” (The New York Times). In these prisons, staff are trained in education theory and conflict management, in addition to prison security. Former inmates in Europe do not face the societal consequences like the denial of aid programs, loans, and voting.
One of the issues stemming from long prison sentencing is the culture shock. After many years, prisoners re-enter a society that has undergone drastic changes in culture, social behaviors, and, above all changes, in technology. This change in technological use and unfamiliarity with this technology also stifles chances of finding jobs. Culture shock is also a large contributor to recidivism, as these changes can be overwhelming and intimidating. In other words, for released prisoners it is a whole new world. Cutting down on sentencing reduces this culture shock, as there will be less significant change within this time, allowing prisoners to better readjust, thereby reducing recidivism. This will cut down on the need for reintegration programs and technology training in the future.
However, this does not fix the whole issue. As mentioned before, most prisoners come from poor backgrounds. A large portion of prisoners do not have a high school diploma or GED. Most prisoners also tend to be minorities, as well. The issues involving prisons are also racial and economic issues, as most minority groups come from poorer backgrounds. Newly released prisoners are also more likely to not possess a high school diploma, significantly hurting their chances on the job market.
The answer to not only fixing these socio-political issues, as well as rehabilitation issues lies in education. A post-secondary education is undoubtedly a gateway to socio-economic mobility, in addition to having a more educated population. A population who may further along scientific discovery and the arts at an even faster rate. As mentioned before, most prisoners come from poor places and will be released into to those same places where they already face a glass ceiling, felon bias, race bias, and also a job market that is now requiring higher and higher education. This is where post-secondary education comes in. While they are in prison, prisoners can take college level courses and potentially receive an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. This will offset the cost of holding prisoners in the first place because when they are released they will make up the cost in GDP produced for the economy. There is a higher chance of being hired by companies after release if the ex-prisoner has a degree. These higher chances also help deter recidivism.
One might suggest the idea that this is simply rewarding prisoners for bad behavior. Some may say people may then purposefully commit crimes to receive a free education. It is, however, not rewarding. It is aiding the acquirement of a better life not just for that individual citizens, but for all the citizens their lives affect, and so on for every prisoner, which will eventually make a better society as a whole. Punishment would not be taken out of the equation. There is still disconnect from society and loved ones, the restrictions on freedoms and lifestyle, and, of course, the cells. Put simply, it is not reward so much as it is transformation.
To answer a question with another question, why is there a country where it is easier to go to prison and receive a degree than simply earn a degree? Most people are not going to go to prison because of the aforementioned punishments, and even if people were purposefully going to prison for this reason statistics still show that to be beneficially, as previously mentioned prisoners make up for it in GDP. It would be more like an investment.
Some may bring up the argument that prisoners should just receive vocational training instead of higher academic education. Firstly, in both cases they are likely to receive work at virtually the same rate. Secondly, that notion is an immediate fix to a long lasting problem of wealth and racial inequality. In the future, there will be even more demand for even higher degrees, so this is progressive action. It is predicted that in the next decade half of all jobs created will require postsecondary education. It is almost futile suggest a more restrictive post-secondary education system when there are no feasible drawbacks to a higher academic education for prisoners. In the same amount of free time, prisoners would be given the opportunity to pursue higher education goals like physics, arts, etc. While in a place where they have a lot of time; killing two birds with one stone in essence. This will also contribute to creating a more educated country as a whole.
The solution lies absolutely in postsecondary education for prisoners. Near Ithaca, New York, a union between New York State and a philanthropic foundation offers some of the prisoners in four nearby prisons the opportunity to earn a college associate’s degree. A study on released Missouri prisoners reveals that for inmates with a full-time job, re-incarceration rates were nearly cut in half, compared to unemployed former inmates. An average of $25,000 is saved each year per released inmate. In 2010, across the nation, over 650,000 inmates were released from state prisons. An estimated $2.7 billion a year could be saved if re-incarcerations were halved. When given a job, former inmates do not require aid and, therefore, can contribute to society with taxes and purchasing power. The same study concludes that chances increase for an inmate to find full employment if they complete an education while in prison. Recidivism rates were 46 percent lower for inmates in education programs compared to non-participants, according to a 2005 analysis of 15 similar studies. Prison education has also been shown to increase the safety of the corrections officers, as the inmates are occupied with studies.
I get it, crime is scary and people want something done about it, but that problem is deeper than putting a few systems in place and then giving up hope on people. The aspects of the American public that needs to change most are the attitudes. Too many people are serving too long of sentences for nonviolent crimes. Not all crimes are created equal so we need systems that reflect that in a much more effective and progressive way than what is currently in place. But also the morality and public perception of crime and criminals has to change. The American people have a tendency to lump criminals into one mass. Seeing them all as on the same level; all of them as beings set out to do evil. But anyone who has had a family who is a prisoner can tell you, it’s not the same. Not every criminal is Jeffrey Dahmer. A burglar is not the same as a serial killer. Crimes, attitudes, reasons, and contexts are all different, and, therefore, deserve different individual responses. If it is always an eye for an eye, the whole world will be blind. We cannot treat these people with the magnitude of contempt that we have shown for decades now. Though the general public may agree with was has been said in this paragraph, their attitudes and actions may say something different. We wanted to come down on the side of justice, but we aided in a systematic evil. We were so caught up in condemning those who committed crimes that we damned them and created a system that only helps the problem. We misguidedly followed the principle of justice but forgot that one must also have love and empathy to full restore someone. Our systems in place only help to further divide the difference in income, and only further in the oppression of the lower class and ethnic minorities. Not to mention most prison systems in the united states violate the U.N.’s humanitarian laws because oversight of these systems is done by the prison systems themselves, no third party, judge or jury. The systems we have in place are an abysmal joke to any real world sense, or reasonable idea of public good.
Link to all of my sources: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1WV5QeVIfwaBcokBQGSYFS_OySV3OAlvjh6IPyq_c9uY/pub