How’s THAT working?
Why do we put people in prison?
We are punishing them for doing something bad.
We are making our communities safer.
(Let’s forget the other reason that is sometimes stated—to reform and rehabilitate them—because virtually no one is pretending that this is a priority in the U.S*.)
So: How’s that working?
Well, losing one’s freedom, privacy, home, family, community, access to the natural world, access to information, and ability to have any meaningful control over one’s life is certainly punishment. No doubt about that.
I am writing this not to question whether some individuals deserve or do not deserve such punishment. I am writing this to state the well-researched, evidence-based long-term consequences of such punishment. These include: anxiety, depression, alienation, post-incarceration PTSD, inability to express emotions, difficulty in forming and maintaining healthy relationships, in making everyday decisions, in functioning in routine social situation. (Note I am not mentioning difficulty in finding housing and employment…a given.)
Why should we care? Because 95 percent of all the men and women we incarcerate get out one day, and many of them emerge with these difficulties and deficits. I write about these surprisingly nuanced challenges faced by those reentering after decades behind bars in my book Free: Two years, Six Lives and the Long Journey Home.
And now to the other reason: We are safer when we put people in prison for wrongdoing. Are we?
The impact of incarceration on crime is limited and has been diminishing for several years. Increased incarceration has no effect on violent crime and may actually lead to higher crime rates when incarceration is concentrated in certain communities. A study conducted by Berkeley sociologist David J. Harding concluded that sentencing someone to prison had no effect on their chances of being convicted of a violent crime within five years of being released from prison. This means that prison has no preventative effect on violence in the long term.
And then there’s this just-published study by Penn State researcher Andrea Corradi that compared feelings of safety in counties and states across the U.S. Researchers found that people living in areas with high rates of imprisonment were no less afraid of being a victim of a crime than people living in areas with lower rates of imprisonment.
This was true whether the participants lived in a state like Vermont, with a relatively low incarceration rate, or a state like Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country. The same patterns emerged among people of different racial and ethnic identities.
So we aren’t actually safer. And we do not feel safer. And many of the 600,000 previously incarcerated men and women who reenter our communities every year have been psychologically and emotionally damaged by their prison experiences in ways that make it difficult for them to become what we want them to be: trusted, productive, engaged members of our communities.
Makes you think, huh?
*In Norway, rehabilitation is at the core of the prison system