Although private, for-profit prisons have recently come under scrutiny, that should not translate into an endorsement of, consent for, or capitulation to “traditional” public prisons. Private prisons are a mutant horror of state violence and capitalist profit incentive, but public prisons still hold the vast majority of the incarcerated population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 8.2 percent of the 1,598,780 prisoners in the United States are incarcerated in privately operated facilities.
No amount of outrage against the privatization of prisons can skew the reality of the state being the greatest perpetrator, enabler, and supporter of violence within the prison system. If we are serious about ending violence within the prison system, we must dismantle both private and public prisons. While private prisons can theoretically be stopped through legislation impeding their operation or budget measures sapping their state funding, taking apart the public prison system requires first extinguishing the popular belief that society needs prisons at all.
The False Argument for Prisons
Although management of public prisons in the United States is divided between federal, state, and local agencies, all prisons share similar goals. To cite two examples, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which administers the federal prison system, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which administers the most populous state prison system, both have mission statements that encompass the overarching aims of public prisons:
1. To protect society by confining offenders
2. To rehabilitate offenders into law-abiding citizens.
According to these self-professed goals, American prisons are either egregiously misguided or disturbingly ineffectual. If the aim of public prisons is to protect Americans from violent criminals, why were over 52 percent of inmates incarcerated in 2011 locked up for nonviolent crimes? If we consider that the mandate of public prisons also includes protecting Americans in a more general sense from nonviolent offenders, why don’t their inmates include any of the executives of Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Barclays Bank, or HSBC, all of which were recently involved in fraud, sanctions violations, or money laundering? They have undoubtedly harmed more Americans than the near 25 percent of prisoners currently incarcerated for drug and immigration offenses.
Public prisons also fail at their goal of rehabilitation. According to the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics study on recidivism, of the 272,111 prisoners who were tracked upon their release in 1994, 67.5 percent were rearrested within three years. Statistics also indicate that a prisoner with a greater number of prior arrests is more likely to be rearrested in the future.
Proponents of the prison system may claim that this relationship between prior arrests and future arrests is inevitable, illustrating the “criminal nature” of certain prisoners, but it is more important to understand how this correlation deeply discredits the myth of prison rehabilitation. The statistics suggest that rather than helping criminals become law-abiding citizens, prisons increase the chances that their inmates will be reincarcerated, with each incarceration making a future incarceration more likely.
This should come as no surprise. Long-term incarceration places inmates in a veritable stasis in which they are often unable to build legitimate professional skills, keep up with the outside world, and even maintain sociability outside of the extreme conditions of prison. Thus, when they are released, former prisoners are often unable to reintegrate into a society that has largely left them behind. They are alienated from friends and family. They are unable to compete for jobs due to their lack of education, skills, and proficiency with technology, to say nothing of the stigmatization of incarceration. They are often ineligible for many safety net programs and are even robbed of their right to vote, ensuring that the system that has swallowed them up and spit them out will continue grinding without those who know it best being able to even lobby against it.
Is it any wonder why these people might return to crime?
Real Solutions Start Where Prisons End
American federal, state, and local governments spent over $60 billion on prisons and associated programs (including parole and probation) in 2003. To put that amount in perspective, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that combined government spending on mental health care during that same year was $58 billion and public spending on substance abuse treatment was only $16 billion. Consider too that an estimated 56 percent of all inmates suffer from mental health problems and 60 percent have substance abuse issues.
(For comparison’s sake: Only 5 percent of the general population suffers from serious mental illness and only 3 percent has substance abuse problems.)
It is also estimated that only 42 percent of those prisoners suffering from mental health or substance abuse problems had ever received any treatment. Hopefully the picture is clear by now. The over-representation of those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse in American prisons is not a coincidence, but the result of a society more eager to imprison them than to treat them. Prison has been prioritized over mental health care and substance abuse treatment as a means of protecting society and rehabilitating criminals—although prisons accomplish neither.
If we are sincere about protecting society, we should begin by taking care of its most vulnerable, whose ranks often include the mentally ill and chemically dependent. If we are to rehabilitate anyone, we must start by addressing their health Prisons cannot protect society, and prisons cannot rehabilitate criminals. Prisons cannot safeguard the vulnerable, and prisons cannot address the issues that beget crime. There is only one thing that prisons can do and that is ensure that there are prisoners.
Originally published on The Boston Occupier.