Do Not Pass Go… The Great Big Jail Fail

Black and white jail

Ah, the United States prison system.  So necessary, yet arguably the current rendition could be considered quite a failure.  In fact, it was probably more successful when a jail looked like the photo above.  From consistent gang warfare; constant segregation; an astounding internal drug trade; extensive amounts of repeat customers; and very little rehabilitation, it is easy to wonder when it will ever be revamped and why it hasn’t already.  Iit also does absolutely zilch to decrease racism and dissolve stereotypes- which are big gateway factors to violence in the first place.  If there’s one thing that prisoners should and could learn on the inside is that we are all equal.  It is only our choices that make us different, and most of the inmates (there are some innocents) made some bad ones to get there.

There are 5,000 prisons nationwide.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), as of 2012, 1 in every 108 (almost 2 million) adults were incarcerated in prison or jail.  About 1 in every 35 (almost 7 million) adult residents of the United States were under some form of correctional supervision.  (http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4843).

Though these numbers were on a decline for the fourth straight year in a row, the U.S. still has a greater percentage of its population locked up than any other country.  A very large portion of the guilty cases are drug-related.  We house more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined.  (http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/stats-on-human-rights/statistics-on-freedom/statistics-on-prisoner-population-rates/)  Before we get too excited about the steady decline, it is not due to the stellar system we have created nor to Americans becoming better human beings, but mostly due to immigration and lack of birth control and abstinence.  Simply put, our population grew faster than the rate of incarceration.  California’s Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011- which redirected non-serious, non-violent and non-sex offender inmates from federal penitentiaries to local facilities or parole supervision- also accounted for incarceration decline because all shuffled inmates were now counted as paroled citizens rather than imprisoned.

1.  Gangs/Racism

gang signs

Prisoners are allowed very few freedoms inside.  But they are allowed the freedom to congregate in groups by their own race.  In fact, it’s not only permitted, it’s expected- in almost every single prison in the country.  Wardens can complain about gangs and violence as if they are completely helpless against it.  But as long as races are allowed to segregate themselves in the yard and talk in close quarters then plans will be made, murders will be committed, drugs will be passed and gangs will remain.  As made evident in an earlier post, racism is a learned tragic flaw.  (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/10/new-evidence-that-racism-isnt-natural/263785/)  It isn’t positive, progressive or intelligent.  We aren’t born to hate someone based on color of skin or place of birth.  Our friends, family and culture teach us this dangerous and unhealthy mental block, which we may fully acquire by the age of three or four. (http://www.boston.com/jobs/news/articles/2012/06/10/harvard_researcher_says_children_learn_racism_quickly/)

Gang members free on the streets exhibit the extreme- marking their bodies and territories so others know who belongs where.  These gangs are often separated by race.  Members start at young ages and are made to believe that someone should be killed simply for entering their neighborhood and it’s fake yet established borders.  These children join the gang to feel that they belong- no matter how well they were raised to think that gang activity is wrong.  The same comradery and brotherhood can be achieved had they joined their school football team.  But there is something about the human attraction to danger coupled with peer pressure that makes being a member the obvious (and they feel ONLY) choice to them.  Often someone they look up to has already joined so it’s the next natural step or it’s the way of the land where they live.  When these gang members get arrested for a crime and end up in prison, they will pick up inside right where they left off- separating themselves from “the enemy.”

Of course there are plenty of gangs outside of prison that fight within their own race, but in jail oftentimes race will outweigh.  If prisoners were forced into intense conversation therapy and  belief-crushing team-building exercises for days and months and years upon end, they would most likely discover more in common than they ever might have imagined and break down some of these walls.  If they were all forced to work consistently to perform any number of jobs (that are usually shipped overseas), then the repetition of teamwork coupled with the reward of proficiency at a new trade could work wonders both in and out of prison.

2.  Drugs, Drugs, Drugs

drugs 3

Drugs have been around for centuries and though conservative people like to pretend they are only enjoyed by the lower echelon of society, all classes, races, cultures and ages consume narcotics by the boatload.  Albert Einstein, George Washington, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates (and many more “important” figures) partook in hard drugs and most of them even considered the drugs to be integral in their mental and social development.  If someone has a negative attitude about pot yet takes recreational Xanax that weren’t prescribed to them then they can’t see the forest for the trees.  In this day and age of pill-popping gone mad, there are more people on some type of drug than ever before.  And just because your drug of choice is “less dangerous” than someone else’s, that doesn’t make you any better of a person.  One person may drop dead of a prescription pill overdose while one person may do heroin and live.  Consuming too much of any narcotic is problematic and we all have our own scale of tolerance.  So let’s stop pretending that only ingrates and dirtbags do drugs.  This is a huge reason the war on drugs is an obnoxious waste of money and resources.  Luckily, the powers that be are starting to wake up:  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/30/smarter-sentencing-act_n_4696889.html). Because of this, we may finally see a valid decrease in our prison population as non-violent offenders are released and properly handled.  But more on that another day.

As of now, the drug trade in prison is estimated at $300 million.  80% of inmates are drug users.  35% are drug addicts.  Clearly there is no successful drug rehabilitation going on.  Why?  How in the world are the most secure places in the country (outside of Washington D.C.) funneling $300 million worth of narcotics?  We can’t get one joint past one TSA agent at an airport anymore but thousands of prison residents easily ingest everything from weed to Oxycontin to ecstasy to crystal meth.  Programs like Narcotics Anonymous have dismal success rates (and a 95% drop out) because they teach the user that they are powerless against the drug.

This is similar to many programs that are available in prison and they negate the responsibility of the user to remain drug free.  It is not the drug that makes someone habitually use it.  It is the user and the feelings they have associated with this drug.  It is the reasons that the users have chosen to escape reality (more than recreationally) in the first place.  Telling prisoners that they are powerless against drugs allows them to shirk their personal responsibility for not only taking them but also any other crimes they may have committed while on them or to acquire them, including, perhaps, the very crime that got them into prison in the first place.  This is counter-productive and dangerous.  Every person is capable of kicking a drug habit with the proper strong will, help and support.  They must first address the emotions that are bringing them down.  They must first conquer the demons that keep them from appreciating their reality.  With the exception of heroin, tens of millions of people use the very same drugs (both for recreational and medicinal uses) and do not get hooked.  If it were the drugs and drugs alone, then nobody would ever be able to touch them without heading for destruction.  With proper education, support, and guidance, prison inmates can have a much higher success rate at kicking their habits.  There is a reason that the drugs are kept flowing through the system.  It’s our job to find out what that reason could be.

3. Repeat Business/Lack of Rehabilitation

Go-to-jail

95% of all inmates will be released, about 700,000 each year.  50% will be released in two years or less.  Scarily, up to 2/3 of the parolees will end up back behind bars within 3 years.  Why?  Well, it’s not always because they are just bad souls who love to cause trouble.  Being a felon is no picnic.  When someone is released from jail, the stigma is the same whether they have committed a murder or simply got caught with an ounce of marijuana near a school.  They must still check “felon” on their job and some housing applications.  And no matter how much this should not sway someone’s decision without a full interview and analysis of the individual and his resume, it most certainly does.  So much so that California has now banned having a felony section on all job applications.  But the other 49 states have not.  So when you are a criminal and you are denied employment, housing, and voting and your family and/or community treat you like a second class citizen, then a very courageous few will turn that rejection into fuel to succeed while the rest will go back to the lives that they had before.  Author Michelle Alexander just released a book entitled “The New Jim Crow” (http://newjimcrow.com/) that is stunning.  She states that poor families of color are born into the system and destined to be stopped, frisked, targeted and swept in so that even if their paths could have been something greater, they will most likely fall prey.  Once they are released from prison it is nearly impossible to get back on their feet.

But some of this could certainly be avoided if what happened inside the prison were at all therapeutic.  Isn’t the idea of prison to teach criminals that their actions were wrong and that they shouldn’t ever do them again?  With a failure rate that high, we have to wonder how much longer this archaic system will continue.  It costs taxpayers $60 billion to send unchanged offenders back into society.  Correction:  in many cases the animal-like conditions and heightened sense of danger and desperation DO change the criminal- by making them worse.  This occurs no matter the age:  (http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/06/17/2166481/study-throwing-kids-in-jail-makes-crime-worse-ruins-lives/).  On average, one inmate is murdered every week across the nation.  The amount of non-fatal violence is astronomical.  Would this all be happening if inmates spent their days working; learning right from wrong; building their compassion levels; going through extensive therapy; and breaking down barriers of race, ignorance, irresponsibility and prejudice?  It may sound “kumbaya” but ideology isn’t impossible.

When prisoners are allowed to live similar social lives in jail (gangs, drugs, fighting, killing, scheming) then nobody can expect them to change before their release.  What if inmates were never allowed to congregate by race or even in any unsupervised groups?  The entire design of modern day prisons could be renovated so that inmates were never allowed communication unless under strict supervised conditions.  If all violent criminals served solitary sentences fully constructed to rehabilitate and reshape their lives for a successful release without return then perhaps the re-incarceration rate might plummet. The physical and mental abuse, rape, horrid conditions, food quality, lack of sexual release, lack of support, ability to get and stay high, and complete sidelining of therapeutic recovery in animalistic conditions have made prison a cyclical stain on our society.  It is time for us to demand change rather than making things worse.  If we change the way we think and feel about violence and crime as well as rehabilitation, then we can change the way our society unfolds.

Perhaps this quote sums it up best:

“Everybody in here; good, bad and the ugly.  We were all once somebody’s little bundle of joy.  Every parent had hopes and dreams.  They didn’t see killers who would perpetrate some of the most heinous crimes against their fellow man staring back at them.  This is all taught.  It’s all taught in this system.  It’s all taught out there.”

Casper Crowell – Aryan Brotherhood