General Question

marinelife's avatar

Ideas on bringing our prison system into the 21st century?

Asked by marinelife (62460points) September 2nd, 2008

While visiting Philadelphia, I saw the old Eastern State Penitentiary. At the time of its building, it was considered extremely innovative. It seems to me we have not made much change in how we handle prisoners since then (1829).

Criminals still return to a life of crime at a high rate, costs are huge and rising, prison populations are huge and rising, prisons are rife with corruption and black market contraband.

In a number of interesting threads on Fluther, there has been discussion of our prison system. What do you think we could do to be more innovative about how we handle convicted offenders? Can technology play a role? What are your views on the roles of punishment and rehabilitation?

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37 Answers

JackAdams's avatar

The very BEST way to improve prisons and prison systems, is to reduce the number of people who keep getting sent to them.

“Create” better citizens (by “creating” better parents and kids) and everntually, the only ones who will end up in them, are those who are too insane to be free.

Yes, I realize I am being too simplistic, but right now, we have more people incarcerated in our jails and prisons, than the entire population of Houston, Texas (1,900,000).

Our prisons/jails have more people in them, than at any time in all of recorded human history, and 20,000 of them (approx.) are INNOCENT.

September 2, 2008, 3:52 PM EDT

scamp's avatar

You might find this site interesting.

tinyfaery's avatar

I think we need to focus on reformation rather then punishment. I’d like to see counseling, opportunities for education and learning trades, ILS classes, etc. Sentences should be handed down with the idea of how much time it might take to help a criminal reform; do they need therapy, a high school diploma, etc. (As an aside, what we define as criminal must also change). Ideally, if we provided these same things to everyone, the prison population would decrease. As of now, the prison system just makes better criminals.

Of course, there are those who we would not be able to rehabilitate. I just believe that these people are not the norm.

JackAdams's avatar

@scamp: That’s a good link, but doesn’t really help the USA system…

September 2, 2008, 4:31 PM EDT

Hawaiiguy's avatar

don’t imprison drug addicts unless there is a crime involved, almost half of the prisoners are drug pffenders and sadly a huge number of those don’t pose a risk to anyone but themselves. Should we punish people because they like vicadon or weed, it makes you wonder where our priorties are?

scamp's avatar

@JackAdams , thanks so much for pointing that out, but the asker didn’t specify The USA system.
I agree with Lightlyseared. Joe gets results!

Zaku's avatar

Changing the environment to something rehabilitating, yet removing the tolerance for the crap that goes on within the system, is what suggests itself to me.

Seems to me the behavior in prison should be more relevant, where people who behave well get to be in an austere rehabilitating environment, and people who continue criminal behavior in prison get harsher conditions, isolation, and/or further charges that keep them in.

Raping other prisoners would be something I’d tend to target and punish severely.

The gang culture also needs to be studied and worked with somehow. Ideally, the prisons could become a place where the gang culture could be transformed into something positive. If not, it could also be made something unacceptable and punishable.

I agree on not imprisoning non-dealer drug offenders. That wants a different system.

JackAdams's avatar

@scamp: Joe not only gets results, he also gets lawsuits.

September 2, 2008, 5:58 PM EDT

Bri_L's avatar

I am with scamp and JackAdams. And it appears it is all high profile.

I wonder what the nature of the lawsuits are. Every jail gets them, from the inmates, about the treatment.

My stepfather, a former priest for 40 years, is now very, very high up in the WI system (I don’t want to say how high or in what capacity). It is amazing what the prisoners a. do to get in there, b. feel they are entitled to (i killed someone, but I deserve blah blah) and c. what they try to claim is unfair ( inmate hits a guard with a pipe and sues when pepper spray is used).

scamp's avatar

@JackAdams , but I doubt he loses. The penal system is full of frivolous lawsiuts that go nowhere.

JackAdams's avatar

@scamp: He’s got a few ACLU lawsuits, that are giving him some “heartburn.”

ACLU = “American Criminal Lovers Union”

September 2, 2008, 6:39 PM EDT

gooch's avatar

Execution stops them from becoming a repeat offender and lowers the number of prisoners.

scamp's avatar

JackAdams link please?

JackAdams's avatar

I don’t have any current news links The ones I had, have expired.

You might try using Google®, to read about them, if they are still available.

September 2, 2008, 6:51 PM EDT

charliecompany34's avatar

put them in a desert, make ‘em wear pink underwear and black and white stripes for the uniform and dont give ‘em no rights. it worked in (dont quote me on this) i think it was arizona. but bottom line, “discomfort” is best. inmates today have too many privileges. they can have rights, but “privileges” must be minimal.

marinelife's avatar

@scamp Thanks for the first link. It goes to show our European brethren are more socially advanced than we are in more than health care.

I am not sure I consider pink jumpsuits useful for much including helping the prison situation.

@cc34 That is the guy in Scamp’s second link.

JackAdams's avatar

President John F. Kennedy once observed that, “The treatment of the American Indian is a national disgrace!” It’s a shame that he didn’t include ex-cons in that assessment, for they are oft times the “forgotten people” of society, and the reason that 67% of all released inmates will re-offend (and be back in prison or jail) within 3 years of their release date, is simply because there is no real support system in place for the ex-offender.

Everywhere s/he goes, s/he is constantly reminded that s/he isn’t “good enough” to once again be a full-fledged member of the citizenry. They can’t register to vote in many places, nor can they get a US Passport, right away. Most employers don’t want to hire ex-cons, and nobody wants one living in their neighborhood.

In short, the person is shunned by almost everyone and made to feel about as welcome as a black man at a KKK picnic.

The answer is to have a sound support system in place, so that the former inmate will be given the one thing s/he needs most: HOPE.

Also, prisons and jails must be as uncomfortable as possible, so no one will ever wish to go back to them.

September 2, 2008, 7:50 PM EDT

Bri_L's avatar

@ charliecompany34 – you got it right. See Lightlyseared and his link.

@ JackAdams – I think your right. about taking it on on both ends.

On another note, I saw an article, which I am trying to find, about what they are able to do and run from inside the prison and it is scary.

marinelife's avatar

@JackAdams You raise a good point. If someone who comes out of prison cannot get a job, what choice do they have, but crime? We definitely need to fix that!

JackAdams's avatar

Yes we do!

But here is why it won’t be fixed, during our lifetimes:

Ex-cons (and their families) DON’T VOTE.

Politicians only help those who can vote for them, or who can contribute financially to their campaigns.

September 2, 2008, 8:16 PM EDT

scamp's avatar

This is what I meant by jailhouse lawsuits. Bored inmates get ahold of this book and abuse the system and our tax dollars, with frivolus lawsuits, such as being served stale bread, or creamy peanut butter instead of crunchy.

Plenty of ex-cons have jobs. If they try hard enough and apply themselves, they can and do get jobs when they get out,. Saying there is nothing left to do except commit a crime is a common cop out. The ones without jobs are more times than not the ones who don’t want to work.

On this site I found this.

There are several organizations in New York City that deal specifically with ex-felons, they are: STRIVE, 240 E. 123 Street, NY, NY 10035, (212) 360–1100; The Doe Fund, Inc., 232 E. 84 St., NY, NY 10028, (212) 628–5207; The Osborne Association, 809 Westchester Ave., Bronx, NY 10455, (718) 707–2600 or 175 Remsen St., 8Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201, (718) 637–6560; The Fortune Society, 53 W. 23 St., 8 Floor, NY, NY 10010, (212) 691–7554

I’m sure there are programs like this in every state, so I have no pity for lazy criminals. I don’t want to hear they have paid their debt to society. I don’t feel the least bit re-embursed.

Poser's avatar

James Gilligan, in his book, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, describes how shame, among other things, can be a root cause of violence. He specifically mentions prison rape as being a source of shame which can then set into motion a cycle of violence and criminal behavior.

When criminals are sent to prison, and allowed to continue their criminal behavior, the only thing our prisons are doing is serving as a place to warehouse those whom we don’t have the strength of will to deal with. Prisons can be both humane and rehabilitative, but not while also being a place where the very behavior for which criminals are locked up is allowed to continue.

edit: I’d also like to add that changing our view of what a prison is supposed to be (and can be) would change the societal view that ex-cons are “broken” and less than human. Note, however, that this shift in social paradigm would take a long time.

augustlan's avatar

I like the idea of treating prisoners a little like college students: In order to “graduate”, you’ve got to complete certain “courses”. Require basic literacy and math skills, require classes in the arts, physcology and philosophy, and offer a variety of classes to learn vocational skills or a trade, of which they must choose at least one. In addition, they should work to “earn their keep”. Very little free time, very little choice. Only upon completion of schooling, working the required amount, and good behaviour would they be released.

Bri_L's avatar

I also feel that they should take part in activities that help finance their stay, or at least relieve the burden

JackAdams's avatar

In some states, inmates are required to work in prison-related industries, to partially pay for their “room & board.”

In fact, if you call “customer service” at the DMV in Oregon, you will more than likely be conversing with a female prison inmate, who sits at a computer and is able to access ALL of the information about your driver’s license and your driving record (fines, citations, etc.).

September 3, 2008, 1:44 AM EDT

Bri_L's avatar


JackAdams's avatar

I know. I felt the same way, when I found that out.

Fortunately, I don’t live in Oregon, where it rains 369 days per year.

September 3, 2008, 1:48 AM EDT

Knotmyday's avatar

Jack- I am totally in agreement with you. We absolutely need to start rehabilitating our convicts, in every sense of the word. The degree of prejudice against ex convicts in our society is absolutely reprehensible. It is no wonder that they return to criminal activity when faced with the American Wall of Shame upon their return to society.

Furthermore, it is past time for a complete reform of our nation’s drug-enforcement policies. Making “recreational drugs” illegal was a backward idea at the time it was instituted, and to continue in a vein which can be considered as reactionary as segregation shows that we are the least-evolved of nations.

Regulate drugs, sure. Making them across-the-board illegal puts users at extreme risk from faulty underground manufacturing techniques.

Anyway, that’s my drug rant- and I don’t even do ‘em. Just a rational conclusion, based on available facts.

And I agree with Poser, and his citation. Our current prison system breeds hardcore criminals through lack of regulation. We need full-scale prison reform now.

JackAdams's avatar

There was a TV program several years ago, and an inmate (with only one eye, because he lost the other in a prison fight) at the Statesville Prison (Joliet IL) was asked to comment about what prisons are, and he made a comment that has stuck with me, from that point, on. He said, “These places are HATE FACTORIES!”

He was absolutely right.

September 3, 2008, 2:39 AM EDT

Judi's avatar

Both of my son in laws are correctional officers so I have an array of opinion to feed off of. The system is a very dangerous place for staff and prisoners alike. A recent resurgence of rehabilitation without the funds to implement anything meaningful has put the brave souls who work to protect us AND the prisoners at even more risk.
Some people just don’t want to be rehabilitated and the gang situation in prisons is really bad. If you want to survive you have to be part of a gang. Peer pressure in prison means you get stabbed or worse if you don’t fall into line.
I used to be a bleeding heart, “total rehabilitation” proponent. Now I think there needs to be a balance. Some people will never be rehabilitated and punishment is all that works. There is hope for many. The best answer is education and programs in SCHOOLS! Prevention is the best deterrent to crime. If we took half of our prisons budget and allocated it to education, and reformed mandatory sentencing to give judges more discretion to evaluate the severity of the crime and likelihood to re-offend we would save thousands of dollars.

JackAdams's avatar

Judi is right on the money.

There are many, currently incarcerated, who WANT to be where they are, and have no intention of changing their ways and welcome the opportunity to have someone else prepare 3 meals a day for them, along with a guaranteed place to sleep every night, hot showers, free (for them!) medical & dental care (a CA inmate got a heart transplant, courtesy of the CA taxpayers), and educational opportunities where you can get a master’s degree (also paid for by the taxpayers).

So who WANTS to be locked up? Charles Manson, for one.

There are others who share his views (and his zip code).

September 3, 2008, 7:55 AM EDT

Poser's avatar

@Jack and Judi—Valid points, for sure. I’d think a radical change in the way prisons are run could be made; one that would make prisons so unpleasant as to be places that people really did want to get away from. Obviously the threat of rape and death aren’t deterrents for many convicts, so other methods ought to be used. Hard labor programs, mandatory education, and a complete crackdown on gang-related activities might be a start. Perhaps making it a bit more about discipline, and less about chaos might be a step in the right direction.

JackAdams's avatar

One thing that still exists as punishment in the Delaware prisons (and you can check with the Delaware DOC, to verify this) is FLOGGING.

A nod to that form of prison discipline, many may recall, was in the Elvis Presley move, Jailhouse Rock, which supposedly, is being remade

September 3, 2008, 8:39 AM EDT

Trillian's avatar

We need to address the underlying causes of criminal behaviour. That means a much more comprehensive system than we have today, with screening of potential criminals in the schools. I can’t wait for someone to start screaming about rights infringement. but treading on a few toes is what will be needed. The ability to read demographics, dynamics and trends and the legal mandate to reeducate our youth. It will mean removing from the media all forms of condoned sexual, alcohol and violent activities. Social isolation as opposed to allowing groups of children free reign where they feed into each others inappropriate ideas about life. Removal of condoned bad behaviour of adults from the media, ie; just about all the reality shows out there. The less our youth is exposed to such drivel, the less they will be inclined to think that all these forms of bad behaviour are acceptable. A return of two parent families. Children are statistically better equipped to deal with life when raised in a financially stable, loving, two parent home. This means, get ready for this, licensing of having children as stringent as adoption. That’s right. The ability to give birth to a child does not automatically confer adequate parenting skills. Start with building better citizens, as the first person in the thread said. Attempt to repair the current law breakers by remembering that they all started life as a child. Comprehensive therapy and counseling is necessary to get at the underlying causes of criminal behaviour. Addictions, compulsions, none of these are addressed in prison. The medical care is indifferent at best. They are dehumanized and then turned back out among us with no skills, transportation, or means of support. No one wants to hire them, yet we expect them to live like decent citizens. Felons are the most marginalized group of people in the country today, and we’re breeding more and more of them all across the country. Some people are just bad, no matter how they are raised, but statistics don’t lie. More than half started life in a single parent, low income situation. This is not a slam against single moms. I’m a single mom. But even single moms who don’t go out and party, bring home a bunch of different guys, do drugs or alcohol, have way too many factors working against them. The best intentions in the world won’t keep them there in the home when they’re needed. They have to go out and work, oftentimes two jobs, just to make ends meet. The kids are left to themselves, or other kids, etc. The low income aspect entails self esteem issues such as; not having the same things that other kids have and the fact that there are significantly more in that low income group doesn’t really change things for these kids. They see stuff on the tv and tv commercials are all about pretty people with lots of “things”.
I can’t keep this up, I’ll give myself a headache. Suffice it to say that we need to just tear down the current system and start from scratch, Had I been a member when this wquestion was asked, I’d have answered then. Sorry to jump in so late.

marinelife's avatar

@Trillian I’m glad I don’t live in the world that you imagine!

Trillian's avatar

@Marina I’d love to hear your oppositional arguments to the points I’ve made. I didn’t arrive at my conclusions lightly, and if you have different ideas or suggestions, I’m not averse to hearing them.

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