The Prison Problem—What’s the Answer?
LAST August 16 I received a phone call at my desk in Brooklyn, New York. I recognized the voice of an old friend, saying: “How would you like to deliver several talks at the Angola prison down in Louisiana?”
“Would I? Yes, I would, very much!” I was glad for the opportunity.
About a year earlier I had read about a highly successful rehabilitation program at that prison, and I wanted to see it firsthand.a Arrangements were made for me to fly there on November 4, 1976.
I have a deep interest in prisons and efforts to rehabilitate prisoners. This is due, in large part, to the fact that I spent nearly two years behind prison walls in the 1940’s. I wasn’t in for wrongdoing, but because my conscience wouldn’t allow me to take up arms in warfare.
Prisons have long had problems—overcrowding perhaps being the major current one. I noticed this Denver Post report of last year: “Prison building threatens to become the biggest growth industry of the 1970s. . . . 524 new facilities or expansions are now on the drawing boards.”—April 25, 1976.
But will building more prisons solve the problem? Is sending wrongdoers to prison the best way to deal with them?
Of interest to me has been the debate going on in the past few years as to what the real purpose of prisons should be.
Punishment or Rehabilitation?
The question debated is: Should prisons primarily be places of punishment for wrongdoers, or places for rehabilitation? A look at history, however, reveals that there are altogether different alternatives.
In ancient times prisons, as we know them, didn’t exist. Then wrongdoers were either executed or given physical punishment, that is, corporal punishment. It could include flogging, branding or maiming, after which the wrongdoer was freed.
Then, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the death penalty was applied to fewer crimes, and physical punishment was gradually abolished. That’s when the practice of sending wrongdoers to prison increased. These were vermin-infested, filthy, overcrowded places, where food was scarce and prisoners were worked long hours. Many died because of the terrible conditions. Punishment was the primary purpose of such prisons.
In more recent times, a change of thinking occurred. During the last century the idea was advanced that the chief purpose of prisons should be to reform or rehabilitate prisoners. As late as 1970, former U.S. President Nixon’s Task Force on Prisoner Rehabilitation concluded that programs of prisoner rehabilitation should become a central feature of future prison policies.
But recently rehabilitation efforts have run into criticism. This sudden shift in viewpoint has interested me.
What About Rehabilitation?
A headline in The National Observer of January 4, 1975, said: “After 150 Years of Trying to Rehabilitate Criminals, even Reformers Concede that . . . REFORM IS A FLOP.”
Science noted: “The disillusionment with ‘rehabilitation,’ at least in its present forms, has been so deep that it has caused many prominent social scientists and penologists to abandon cherished philosophies in a matter of a few years.”—May 23, 1975.
Newsweek concluded: “The growing consensus among prison professionals seems to be that . . . the essential function of a penal system must become the punishment by confinement of the criminal and the protection of society from his misdeeds.”—February 10, 1975.
As a resident of New York city, I’m wholly in favor of a renewed emphasis on protecting society from criminals. The mayor of Wilmington, Delaware, Thomas Maloney, was, unfortunately, accurate when he said: “Citizens are now the prisoners in their homes, with chains, locks, bars and grates while the criminals are on the outside, roaming about free.”
Many would applaud a shift to a primary concern for the rights of law-abiding victims of crime. It seems clear that the failure to make wrongdoers responsible for their acts has only made them more confirmed criminals. Of course, this raises a big question: Is it possible to punish the growing number of wrongdoers by means of prison sentences?
The Problem of Where to Put Them
The fact is, efforts to crack down on crime already have flooded United States prisons. From January 1973 to January 1977 the population in just the federal and state prisons in the United States leaped 45 percent, from 195,000 to 283,000! The Wall Street Journal reports: “Most states already have crammed inmates into every nook and cranny of existing prisons. Convicts are sleeping on ledges above toilets, in shower rooms and in gymnasiums.”—July 20, 1976.
In addition to the large federal and state prisons, there are thousands of county and city prisons. The New York Times last June said that 60,000 men and women spend time in New York city’s eight prisons each year. And one criminologist says that more than two million persons annually pass through United States prisons!
The problem becomes overwhelming when you consider that over 10 million serious crimes are reported to the police each year—well over 30 million in the past three years! There simply are not enough facilities to hold all the wrongdoers, even the ones the authorities are able to apprehend. And already the cost to taxpayers is staggering.
I was astonished to read the report in the New York Times last September that it costs “about $12,000 per inmate per year merely for custodial care in New York prisons.” At that rate, it comes to a $3-billion yearly bill just to keep the 250,000 inmates in federal and state prisons! And for building new prisons, the construction costs reportedly will run as much as $40,000 per prisoner!
The prison problem is indeed a big one, especially in view of the prediction by one prison expert that there could be 400,000 inmates in federal and state prisons by the mid-1980’s. What’s the answer?
Desirability of Rehabilitation
Let’s face it. All of us would be glad to see criminals reform and become law-abiding, useful citizens. And such changes by individuals aren’t impossible, despite the failure of most in-prison rehabilitation programs. It’s just that, as Norman Carlson, director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, recently said: “Rehabilitation has been oversold as a concept. . . . we’re now aware of the fact that we can’t rehabilitate anybody—we can just provide opportunities for them.”
I’m personally convinced that the providing of right opportunities will serve to motivate certain criminals to change. I say this because, as an inmate in the federal prison at Ashland, Kentucky, I had seen how a prisoner’s heart could be reached and his whole life transformed.
So, I looked forward to my November trip, and to seeing firsthand what was being accomplished there in Louisiana’s Angola prison. It is the second largest state prison in the United States, being an 18,000-acre complex. A 1975 news report states that it was designed for 2,600 inmates, but houses 4,409.
Soon Thursday, November 4, arrived and I was on my way.
a Awake!, April 22, 1975.
[Blurb on page 4]
“Many would applaud a shift to a primary concern for the rights of law-abiding victims of crime.”