My Turn: Modern system of long-term imprisonment costly to society

Posted: Friday, December 19, 2003

Four years ago the United States moved ahead of Russia as the nation most inclined to lock up her citizens. Our imprisonment rate is the highest on Earth, five times that of Canada, six times that of the United Kingdom and far higher that any of the so-called undeveloped countries of the world - all of which have much lower crime rates.

Since the early 1980s sentencing policies have evolved throughout the nation that could hardly be more effective in ensuring the perpetuation of crime than if they were designed for that purpose. Our country is paying a high price for this addiction, to the use of excessive imprisonment. Oftentimes it is imprisonment that offers no hope. For no justifiable purpose, we impose misery and suffering. At times, we seem to deliberately inflict despair. The suffering of children and innocent family members accounts for nothing. Most imprisoned offenders have not committed crimes of violence; many of them pose no threat to the community.

Neglect of initiatives that might break this cycle of misery continues. Money that could pay for such efforts is squandered in a frenzy of prison construction. To the people who make our laws, an emphasis on prevention and reform seems to be a foreign idea.

Of all instruments of social policy, imprisonment is the least effective and by far the most expensive. We appear to be locked into a system that systematically disables human potential, inflicts carnage on families and destroys hope. In the process, we become less secure, less stable and in all ways, less worthy as a society.

The dollar cost of maintaining 2 million people in prison is stupendous. Imprisonment in our country is a multibillion-dollar industry - billions of dollars that are productive of nothing. The industry maintains itself in good health by handing out millions in campaign contributions. High-powered lobbyists haunt the corridors and chambers of every legislative venue in the country from Washington, D.C., to Juneau. These redoubtable people earn very large incomes persuading lawmakers to take measures that are clearly bad for our society.

This, the unique American way of dealing with law violators, is not useful in prevention of crime. To be sure there is debate among social scholars as to whether having so many criminally inclined people behind bars accounts for the slight decrease in crime rates that occurred during the Clinton years. In any event, it is an argument that begs the question. It fails to take into account the ominous social consequences of having such huge numbers of our citizens behind bars, while the needs of education and early childhood intervention programs are shamefully neglected.

Why isn't long-term imprisonment of criminals effective in controlling crime? An important part of the answer is that there is not even much pretense of rehabilitation anymore; we haven't been willing to allocate the money. Virtually every correctional system in the country is seriously underfunded. Programs aimed toward reformation are the first to be cut because they are not politically attractive.

Thirty-five years ago there was far greater commitment to rehabilitative programs than today. A lot of decency and human concern is still to be found among prison workers in most jurisdictions, but what can they do? Correctional systems throughout the country are overwhelmed with numbers.

The technology of imprisonment has greatly "improved." Prisoners are not routinely managed by way of television monitors and toggle switches, operated from behind the inch-thick glass of control booths. These kind of innovations became necessary to control the numbers; therefore, there has been a tragic loss of opportunity for human relationships between inmates and staff members. It can be truly said that the correctional function of the criminal justice system in our country has become hardly more than human warehousing - efficient, high-tech human warehousing.

As a result of higher court decisions handed down during the 1980s, the once formidable authority of U.S. District Courts to monitor prison conditions has been curtailed. The Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, no longer amounts to much anymore when it comes to the way prisoners are treated. One result of this has been proliferation throughout the country of "super-max" prisons and the practice of keeping the troublesome prisoners, as well as those who just might be troublesome, in total isolation for 23 hours a day, sometimes for years on end. Keep in mind, even under the best of circumstances, prisons tend to make people worse, not better. And the best of circumstances no longer pertain.

About 95 percent of offenders who serve prison sentences are, sooner or later, released. We have managed to create a perpetual reservoir of about 2 million. With each day that passes, there will be an increase in the flood of alienated, embittered people coming back into the community, many of them with untreated, dangerous addictions. Unless there is revolutionary change, we are assured of having a steady and generous supply of angry, disillusioned, directionless "ex-cons" coming out to live among us, responding to opportunities that are most available to them and resuming activities that come natural to them. It is not a good prospect.

• Charles Campbell of Juneau is a former state Department of Corrections director and past standing compliance monitor for the Cleary ruling, with almost 50 years experience in various aspects of the corrections field.

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