Thursday, August 14, 2008

American Prisons

Taking numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and from the US Census Bureau, I calculate that more than 1.4% of males in the US are sleeping tonight in small smelly cells. If we assume that the vast majority of those are 18 years old or over (which may not be a valid assumption), that would lead us to a figure of between 1.75% and 1.8% of adult males in the US being locked down.

Sound bad?

US population is growing at about .9% each year. Prison population growth ranges between 1.8% (2007) and 2.7% (2005) in recent years, and 2.6% on average since 2000. In other words the incarcerated population is growning 2 to 3 times as fast as the total population.

Is that a problem?

I'm no mathmetician, but it seem clear that if this continues, at some point the whole of the US population will be behind bars.

Should we be worried?

According to the US Department of Justice, more than 2/3 of those released from prison are back behind bars (prison or jail) within three years. So should we just not release them? If we didn't, then the number behind bars would also include those currently on parole and probation, putting it somewhere over 8% of the US population.


Does the system of imprisoning criminals work? Does it reduce crime? Is it really a deterrent beforehand? Does it discourage repeat crimes? It used to seem to. But one begins to wonder whether that seeming was really an illusion. Perhaps there were other even stronger motives in the past that helped keep people out of prison, motives that are less strong today, such as fear of embarrassing one's family, fear of God, a sense of social responsibility.

But it would be totally inauthentic to ask this question just from the perspective of what criminals do to get into the justice system. How have those of us who are on the outside stood by while our incarceration industry grows to double our military, more than triples our postal service? I suspect that most of us don't much care about prisons or prisoners as long as they are kept out of our way.

The purpose (and danger) of prisons is not much different than that of nursing homes. They insulate the rest of us from some of the unpleasant aspects of life. But we may be too well insulated, from the ill, the aging, the insane, and from our criminal brothers.

We have built such a fine complex of prisons, nursing homes, mental health facilities, etc., that we no longer need to be told to love our enemies. We need to be taught to love our friends and family.

They might be murderers, but they are still our brothers and we are still our brother's keeper. In some way we remain responsible for them and to them.


Vincent said...

I'm very glad you wrote this. You are another of the few Americans I have encountered who care about this. (not that I have encountered many Americans). For a few years I corresponded with a man held in Death Row in Florida. He was making the most of his time, but of course his main objective was to make a successful appeal and be released. I wonder what will happen to him.

Doug P. Baker said...

I'm glad you approve! I don't have all the answers on this question, but I am very concerned that our present system of incarcerating all criminals, elderly, mentally handicapped, and psychologically fragile people is not only doing great damage to the inmates, but also to our whole society and our own sense of what it means to be human.

Where do you live, Vincent?

Vincent said...

In Buckinghamshire, England, at the midpoint between London and Oxford.