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Prisoners, Worthless Trash or Unseen Potential?

Updated on July 12, 2013
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Krysteena is a former housewife turned single mother, long time gamer (Original Nintendo era), and Storywonk member. Dusted for the win!

Created in 2010, this map shows the ratio of prisoners to regular population. I find it interesting that the US is higher in prisoner rates than Russia, which is seen as such a strict country.
Created in 2010, this map shows the ratio of prisoners to regular population. I find it interesting that the US is higher in prisoner rates than Russia, which is seen as such a strict country. | Source
How crowded our prisons are by state. This page also has a very good article about prison overpopulation, which is a very real issue.
How crowded our prisons are by state. This page also has a very good article about prison overpopulation, which is a very real issue. | Source

Introduction to the Paper

Our prisons are full, often to beyond capacity in many states. I had a homework assignment in logic class to look at a social issue and write about the situation, viewing it under a logical basis. I was very happy with how my paper came out, I think it may be a good way to view the situation, so I thought I would share it here.

Please keep in mind that this opinion is my own, and was a paper written for a class that has finished. I welcome any comments or helpful suggestions, however the paper was already handed in and has received a grade, so any suggestions you may have to make my paper better will not actually help. But thank you if you feel the impulse to try to help out.

PS. Any and all images posted here are to help you understand what I am speaking about, they were not in the initial paper I had turned in. Thank you.

Prisoners, Trash or Potential

Our prison system has been in place for a very long time, so any change will be difficult expensive, and take a long time to put into place. The purpose of the current setup of our nation’s prison system is twofold: punish the people who do not follow society’s rules, and keep those people off the streets. There are a lot of recent studies, published for parents to have the opportunity to learn about the debate of punishment versus discipline. Severely restricting the freedom of convicted criminals may seem like an effective punishment, for many people the thought of spending time in prison would be an effective deterrent to committing a crime. However it does not provide any positive alternative life option for anyone unfortunate or ill advised enough to land themselves in prison, and it does not show an alternative way for a person to live their life. While prison does serve the function of taking criminals off the streets for a period of time, it does not provide a permanent future solution that effectively removes these people from the court rosters in the future, instead often setting up people to perceive themselves as failures throughout their life. The possibility of a better method is available, the difficult part is deciding it needs to be done and putting it into place.

First, prison is currently set up to serve two functions, punish wrong doers, and keep them off of the streets. This is done firstly to punish the criminal and get them to think twice about recommitting a crime once their time is done. “Deterrence is one of the primary goals in the criminal justice system and it is described as special or specific deterrence and general deterrence. The purpose of special/specific deterrence is to instill fear on the offender so that they will not commit future crime. General deterrence is based on punishing offenders to instill fear in society, otherwise known as teaching society a lesson and showing the consequences of committing crime.” (Larrabee, 2006) Many politicians have taken a firm stance in favor of being tough on crime for many years now, with the outcome of longer prison sentences for even non-violent crimes. For years the idea has been that by taking criminals off the streets and putting them in prison will make our citizens feel safer. (Ehrlich, 2001) The outcome has been severe prison overcrowding, with little relieve to be seen.

There are a lot of studies about the value debate of punishment versus rehabilitation. The question is does punishment in and of itself actually effectively deter someone from committing another act of crime, or does imprisoning criminals truly only reinforce the idea that they are bad people and put them in a networking situation with other perceived bad people? Recent studies done for the support of parents suggest that when parents focus on punishing the negative behavior instead of correcting the child’s way of thinking about the behavior it tends to reinforce the negative behavior and encourage sneaky habits. “Research has shown clearly that positive rewards, praise, and admiration are far more powerful than threats and punishment. Children who are repeatedly rebuked and punished may even conclude that getting their parents' approval is hopeless, which can lead to still angrier, more rebellious behavior.” (The Discipline Debate, n.d.) Adults who never receive effective discipline as children bring childhood issues into adulthood. It seems only reasonable to bring effective child discipline to these adult children in an effort to finally teach them how to effectively become responsible adults. Since negative reinforcement does more to reinforce negative behavior than it does to teach positive behavior, it is time to bring some positive discipline into the picture.

Severely restricting the freedom of convicted criminals may seem like an effective punishment, for many people the thought of spending time in prison would be an effective deterrent to committing a crime. However it does not provide any positive alternative life option for anyone unfortunate or ill advised enough to land themselves in prison. Surprisingly this has not been the position of prisons since the birth of America. It used to be that rehabilitation, and even therapy, was available to prisoners. “Until the mid-1970s, rehabilitation was a key part of U.S. prison policy.” (Benson, 2003) Now the idea is that criminals are people who need to be punished, put into prison, and basically forgotten. There seems to be a very large percentage of the population who believes that any person who commits a crime is beyond redemption, cannot or does not want to be helped. This could stem from an idea that if it must take a horrible person to commit a crime, otherwise anyone could be a criminal. If anyone could be a criminal then criminals could be anywhere. If criminals could be anywhere, then there is no place that is safe from criminal activities. While on the face of it, this logic is actually true and would seem to lead to the conclusion that putting all criminals in prison would be the best way to make the rest of humanity safe, it ignores every reason a person turns to crime in the first place, such as the motivation of desperation when someone believes they have no other option, or sees no different choices open for themselves. Knowing that turning to crime is many times a last chance effort for desperate people in desperate circumstances, the logic of putting all criminals behind bars permanently no longer seems the most logical reaction to the problem of what to do with criminals.

While prison does serve the function of taking criminals off the streets for a period of time, it does not provide a permanent future solution that effectively removes these people from the court rosters in the future, instead often setting up people to perceive themselves as failures throughout their life. A study done following parolees in 15 states who were released in 1994 found that 67.5% of them were rearrested within three years. (Patrick A. Langan, 2002) The study does not tell the whole study as it doesn't say how many of these parolees were of retirement age, if any were under the influence of an addiction or mental illness, or any influencing situations as to who were rearrested or why they recommitted crimes and why the other parolees were able to remain free. It would be telling to find out if the free parolees had found permanent, stable jobs, went back to school or family, or were of retirement age or if something else happened to either prevent them from committing another crime or from being caught, or to encourage them to life their life in a more socially acceptable manner. All the study shows is how many people recommitted the same crimes, how many committed different crimes, and how much of the total was committed of each distinct type of crime. The study creators seemed to be more concerned with how many people fell back into their comfort zone of crimes, and how many of them evolved or escalated their criminal activities, all of which are indeed very telling, but do not tell the whole story.

In studies done on inmates who received college education while in prison, recidivism rates dropped from around 75% to close to 25%. (Vacca, 2004) This makes sense as any newly learned skill creates a new set of opportunities and opens up a whole new world for the person who learned the skill. If most prisoners have wound up in prison because they saw no other option for the direction of their lives, a more permanent solution would be to teach them a new skill or trade that would open up their mind and their world to new opportunities. Even better would be if they could learn things that sparked their own interest, and truly involved them in the learning experience. Adding this to drug rehabilitation and therapy where it would be necessary and prison could potentially become a place where people who feel completely lost would have the opportunity to truly find themselves and figure out where their own talents lay, and society would have a very empowering opportunity for prisoners. Prisons would have the ability to become the last chance for people to straighten out their lives, rather than the place society throws them to forget about them.

Since our prison system has been in place for a very long time, change will be difficult and expensive. Currently prison serves two functions, punish wrong doers, and keep those people off the streets. Prison could be so much more, both for society as a whole, and for the individuals who find themselves stuck, mentally and emotionally, with the idea that there is no other place for them to go in their life. Instead of seeing themselves as a failure of a person, good only to be thrown away and forgotten or to live their life on the edge of society, we have a real chance as a country to make a positive, permanent difference in these people’s lives. And instead of giving our citizens a false sense of security by throwing people into prison and pretending we just took care of the problem, we could benefit society for real by helping criminals find their way to make a positive mark on society and be someone they can be proud of being. We could be an example to the world of how to influence a positive change in the portion of society that most nations have given up on. Our nation as a whole would benefit from the positive idea that anyone truly has a chance to succeed in America, and that we back up that idea with our actions even in the least privileged areas of our society.

References

Benson, E. (2003, July). Rehabilitate or Punish? Retrieved from American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug03/rehab.aspx

Larrabee, A. K. (2006, November 28). Punishment vs Rehabilitation in the Criminal Justice System. Retrieved from Yahoo Voices: http://voices.yahoo.com/punishment-vs-rehabilitation-criminal-justice-119962.html?cat=17

Patrick A. Langan, P. D. (2002, June 2). Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994. Retrieved from Bureau of Justice Statistics: http://bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=1134

Pawel, J. J. (n.d.). DISCIPLINE VS. PUNISHMENT. Retrieved from parents toolshop: http://www.parentstoolshop.com/HTML/tips6.htm

Vacca, J. S. (2004, December). Educated Prisoners Are Less Likely to Return to Prison. The Journal of Correctional Education, pp. 297-305.

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