Do Prisons Accomplish Their Goals?
NO, THE concept of prison as a punishment to prevent people from committing crimes did not really work. In fact, crime increased.
Nor were those who had served prison sentences benefited. Usually, prison had a negative effect. This was ironic, for society jailed the offender because he was bad for that society, but because of the pitiful prison environment the offender was usually made worse. Then he was released back on society, often to end up in jail again for a longer term!
In more recent times, the basic idea of prisons underwent another considerable change. The new idea promoted by sincere reformers was to make the rehabilitation, the reform of prisoners, a major goal in prison life. The confinement was considered enough of a punishment in itself. No physical mistreatment was to be inflicted upon a prisoner as had often been the case previously.
James Bennett, former director of federal prisons in the United States for twenty-seven years, said concerning the abandoning of physical punishment in this new concept: “The officers in the federal system are strictly forbidden to use anything resembling direct action or anything that could be construed as corporal punishment, however. They do not, partly because this is undesirable and also because it is less effective than removal of privileges, a job change, or canceling treasured visits.”
Uncooperative prisoners could also lose ‘good-conduct credits,’ which would have made them eligible for parole sooner, resulting in a longer stay in prison. Fear of this loss was thought to be an inducement to good behavior.
But aside from abandoning brutality, and improving living conditions, upon what was rehabilitation to be based? Supposedly it was teaching a prisoner to turn from his wayward course by proper education. That would include training him in new work skills so that upon release he would be a more useful member of society.
Is this what has actually taken place? Are modern prisons realizing these goals?
There can be no doubt that prison conditions generally are much improved over the horrors of a century or two ago. Yet, are the conditions such that they have a good effect on people, improving their mental outlook?
Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts stated that ‘prison conditions are almost universally deplorable and have a dehumanizing effect.’ Congressman William Anderson of Tennessee stated: “The U.S. system of corrections is a total national disgrace.”
Federal authorities who toured a West Virginia state penitentiary called it “a complete disaster,” and “a custodial nightmare.” Violence was largely uncontrolled. Drugs and alcohol were prevalent. A prosecuting attorney said of the prison: “It is absolutely senseless to send a man into that prison, because he’s going to come out worse.”
The San Francisco Chronicle reported the case of one of Jehovah’s witnesses who was in prison because of his conscientious objection to war. One day this peace-loving man observed a disturbance in another cell. Later, the guards came and beat the prisoners, including the Witness! The newspaper said: “They choked and hit him on the throat and then took him to the end of the corridor, where ‘the brutal and inhuman beatings being visited upon the other prisoners was such that he could not stand to watch’ and he turned his head away.” He charged that a guard also struck him in the eye and temple with a club. He was then thrown into solitary confinement and kept without medical care. Yet he was not even involved in the original disturbance.
Also, because of the unavailability of members of the opposite sex, homosexuality is rampant in men’s prisons, as is lesbianism in women’s prisons. Mass homosexual rapes are common. In the book I Chose Prison, a former federal prison official says of this matter: “No one has come up with an answer to the problem.”
In Canada, the Windsor Star reports that after an investigation into the problem twenty-three judges were “appalled” at what they found. The paper stated: “Former inmates have reported to official commissions that it is almost impossible for a young man to escape sexual assault for any length of time in most jails across the country. ‘It happens all the time,’ says John Tennant, who has spent 13 years behind bars. ‘I’ve seen young guys attacked by three or four inmates night after night.’”
For women, prison life can also be demoralizing. The limiting of movement, the petty details of prison life, the strict regulating of schedule, the infrequent contact with loved ones, the threat of sexual immorality, all are extremely depressing.
Krishna Nehru Hutheesing, the sister of India’s former prime minister, said of her stay in an Indian prison on political charges some years ago: “I found the lack of human touch, the insolent way we were talked to and the oppressive atmosphere of the place, at times became unbearable.” She spoke of a life “full of menace, violence, meanness and graft and there was always cursing on one side and cringing on the other. A person who was at all sensitive was in a state of continuous tension with their nerves on edge.”
Regarding children sent to detention centers by family courts, the New York Times of July 27, 1971, reported: “At the detention center he is incarcerated with children who have committed homicides, robberies, assaults and other crimes. Homosexuality is prevalent. In the attempt to resolve one problem, the court has placed him in a situation which can only lead to more problems.”
What About Reform?
Clearly none of these conditions is conducive to reforming a person. But what about rehabilitation programs, such as acquiring new work skills? Can they counteract those other negative influences?
The consensus even among prison officials is, No. They candidly admit that few useful skills are learned, that the work is dull and monotonous, and that there is really no sound program for improving the mental condition of the prisoner, which is the key to reform.
The New York Post of September 18, 1971, quoted Chief Justice Burger of the U.S. Supreme Court as saying: “Few prisons today have even a minimal education or vocational training program to condition the prisoner for his return to society as a useful self-supporting human being.”
England’s Guardian Weekly carried a letter from a prisoner who had been released recently after a prison term there. He said: “It was unhealthily overcrowded and the sanitation facilities so short that ‘filth’ in the worst possible sense is the only word to describe it. . . . A prison sentence may be a humiliation, a degradation, and a slur to one’s pride and character . . . What it is not in any way, shape, or form is a reformative period for the criminal or a preventive against further crime.”
That assessment is backed up by evidence on all sides. Modern prisons are not deterring crime, as it is ‘exploding’ in nearly every country on earth. And prisons are not doing what reformers had expected, they are not rehabilitating criminals for more useful lives after returning to society. As U.S. News & World Report of September 27, 1971, said: “Failure of prisons to reform criminals is evidenced by statistics showing that about 80 per cent of all felonies [serious crimes] are committed by ‘repeaters.’”
[Blurb on page 9]
A former prisoner in England says: ‘A prison sentence is not in any way, shape, or form a reformative period or a preventive against further crime.”
A news magazine says: “About 80 per cent of all felonies are committed by ‘repeaters.’”
[Picture on page 8]
Children sent to detention centers are often placed in a situation that can only lead to more problems