The other night I was watching “The Shawshank Redemption,” a film about a group of prisoners living behind bars. At one poignant moment, one of the prisoners, Red, is asked whether or not he feels he’s been rehabilitated after serving time. To that he responds, “Rehabilitated? You know, I don’t have any idea what that means.” Upon a closer look at the state of affairs in America, it appears the U.S. prison system too fails to understand what rehabilitation is.
The driving force behind our incarceration system is twofold: We aim to punish wrongdoing as a means of deterrence, but we also want to rehabilitate criminals so that they may again function in and contribute to society. It is my view, however, that in past decades we have placed too much emphasis on the former and not enough on the latter.
By every measurable standard, the prison system is failing our nation – the notion of incarceration as we see it now is flawed. A prison essentially amounts to a grouping of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals that society has set apart from law-abiding citizens. We send these people to one place, keep them there for a period of time and then release them. We are allowing them a venue where they can share stories and tips and build what will be, for many, the only viable relationships they will have when released.
Prisoners go in for misdemeanors and walk out equipped with the knowledge and contacts to commit felonies. Prisons are places where criminals can meet criminals. It’s no wonder that a 2006 study found that within three years of release, a staggering 67 percent were rearrested and 52 percent were sent back to prison. This is to be expected, considering that we currently operate under a “punish over help” mindset. We are giving these people “time-outs” without the critical “lesson learned” that helps prevent relapses.
Critics of the prison system can also look to the significant economic burden that the system places on taxpayers. According to a White House study, the average cost per year to keep one prisoner behind bars is roughly $23,542 and growing exponentially each year. Multiply that by the 2007 prison population of 2,293,157 and it comes out to a $53,985,502,094 burden on taxpayers. Each of us pays about $388 per year for a failed prison system.
Alternatives must be explored. One such idea addresses drug abuse: Studies have concluded that intensive drug rehabilitation clinics are more effective and more cost-efficient than is incarceration in combating drug abuse. The same study that determined the yearly costs per prisoner found that the cost of a successful drug treatment plan was about $9,000 – less than half the incarceration rate. The study also concluded that only 3.3 percent of those in treatment were rearrested within the first six months after release, compared to the 12.1 percent of those not in the program.
Why do we allow this to go on? People are scared. As a society, we require some sort of closure and believe that locking a person away for 10 years will do the trick. We remain blissfully unaware that in 10 years, that person will likely emerge from the prison system in worse shape than when he or she entered.
Politicians don’t make any effort to dispel the misconception. They have something to gain by keeping more and more criminals locked up. One study found that, were everyone in prison released without jobs, the unemployment rate would be 1.3 percent higher.
In addition, businesses stand to make a fortune off of the prison population, Convicts are perfect consumers: They are a captive audience, forced to use certain products without any alternatives. The Prison Policy Initiative found that one food company, VitaPro Meat, made $34 million dollars per year from the Texas prison system alone. It’s a goldmine for big business and one that they are reluctant to let go. Because they thrive off of repeat costumers, rehabilitation is simply bad for business.
We must reform the prison system as we see it now. We are living under a false sense of security when we lock people away without giving them the tools to help themselves. If we are not going to help them overcome their difficulties, then we might as well give every criminal a life sentence, because anything else is only making the problem worse.
The alternatives to general incarceration are there – before we shrug them off as being soft on crime, we need to take a hard look at our current system. If Americans think that locking criminals away will assuage their fears, maybe we all could use a little rehabilitation as well.
Tim Swenson is a junior in the College, a cadet in Army ROTC and a GUSA senator. He can be reached at swensonthehoya.com. Closing Arguments appears every other Tuesday.
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