Around 95% of all prisoners in the United States of America will eventually be released. In a study conducted by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics that tracked over 400,000 offenders in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005, the study found that around 68% of these offenders were arrested again within 3 years of their release and that around 77% of them were arrested again within 5 years of their release. Out of the offenders who were arrested within 5 years after their release, around 57% of them were arrested within 1 year of their release. What does this mean? It means that our prison system is failing. For the most part, our prisoners are not coming out of prison better off or better people. There are two main reasons I care about this issue. One of them is that I always like to see people improve themselves and turn their lives around. Nothing warms my heart more than redemption. The other is that it means our streets aren’t getting any safer.
Why isn’t our prison system working? Because it focuses too much on punishment and not enough on rehabilitation. When Tupac Shakur was interviewed when he was in prison, the interviewer told him how people were speculating how him being in jail was going to give him a lot of inspiration and possibly lead to his best album yet. Tupac replied, “Prison kills your spirit…There is no creativity, there’s none of that.” This is not true for everyone. If you watch the show Lockup on MSNBC you will see many examples inmates’ creativity. But for many inmates, prison does kill their spirit. In fact, there’s a modern saying that prison is “criminal college.” Oftentimes what inmates learn in prison is just how to act like even more of a degenerate.
But should prison be a completely happy and positive experience? Is punishment what is crushing the spirit of many prisoners?
Should prison be a place of punishment? That’s an interesting question. The answer at Bastoy Prison in Norway seems to be a resounding no. In Norway the maximum prison sentence is 21 years. The only possible exception to this is the perpetrator of the 2011 Norway attacks Anders Behring Breivik who killed 77 and injured 319 who was sentenced to 21 years but with the possibility of an extension of his sentence as long as he is deemed a danger to society. The prison is located on Bastoy Island in Norway, and the only punishment for the inmates is their loss of freedom. It holds Norway’s most serious offenders. Some of its inmates include drug smugglers, rapists, and murderers. There are no bars at the prison, the guards don’t carry guns, and the prison resembles a summer camp. The inmates live in extremely humane conditions. They live in houses in what resemble cozy self-sustaining villages rather than cells. The prison is run by Arne Kvernik Nilsen, who calls the prison the “first human ecological prison.” There are many fun activities for the prisoners to do there and they are given responsibilities and jobs to do. The guards act not only as guards but as social workers. The premise behind all of this is that these strategies will help the inmates reenter society as reformed, better people and functioning and perhaps even valuable members of society. The craziest thing about this prison is that the strategies seem to work. The recidivism rate among people released from Bastoy Prison is only 16%, compared with around 70% for prisons across the rest of Europe and the U.S.
I’m not suggesting we adopt the strategy of Bastoy Prison across the United States. But it is clear from the example of Bastoy Prison that rehabilitation is more effective than punishment. But does that mean there should be no punishment?
I think there should be punishment. I think that prisoners need to pay for their actions. But our prison system needs a complete overhaul because it is failing our prisoners and our citizens/taxpayers.
Here are some of my ideas for changes to the prison system.
- Make only the first half of an inmate’s sentence punishment. Put them in a facility much like the ones that exist now.
- After they finish the punishment period, transfer them to a facility completely dedicated to rehabilitation. Build facilities or replace existing facilities with or convert existing facilities into facilities that use similar strategies to Bastoy Prison to rehabilitate prisoners and help them prepare for reintegration into society as better people and better citizens. These facilities will not be a place of punishment. Make rehabilitation programs that cater to the needs of different types of offenders. (Although Bastoy Prison is a very big complex and very extravagant so it would be very expensive to build a bunch of facilities like that. So not all of these facilities would have to be nearly as elaborate or extravagant as Bastoy Prison.)
- Change policies for repeat offenders. People should never get life in prison for burglary or drug charges due to three strikes laws. That is ridiculous.
- Make drug charges less severe. Drug crimes are based on personal choices that affect no one directly but the people who make those personal choices. The severity of drug laws in this country is ridiculous.
- Make sentences less harsh for first offenders. First offenders are in a very vulnerable place. They are at a crossroads where they will either learn from their mistake and won’t go back to prison again or will learn bad things in prison have their spirit crushed and become repeat offenders and lifelong criminals.
- Require every inmate to take courses that help them reintegrate back into society. It can be very hard for a prisoner to reintegrate back into society, especially for those who have served long term sentences. Oftentimes they become institutionalized from living in prison so long and don’t know how to function on the outside world anymore. This may lead them to offend again just so they can go back to prison life which they have actually become more comfortable with.
- Have every inmate serving a sentence longer than 1 year who do not have their high school diploma be required to take educational courses toward helping them get their GED. Education will save this country. And a high school diploma or GED equivalent will make it much more likely for a prisoner to get a job or even have a shot at higher education down the road.
- Outlaw private prisons.
There also need to be more ways that we help offenders reintegrate back into society. One idea I have to help them get jobs is for there to be a government program much like the one where companies get tax breaks for hiring people with disabilities only using the same idea with offenders. The employer would be given a full report and background on the potential employee so they could judge if they are too dangerous to hire. Much of the reason that people turn back to crime is because they can’t find an honest living after they get out of prison because no one will hire them.
Unfortunately, prisons are a business, and there are people that make a lot of money off of prisons in the state they are currently in. And some of these changes I have proposed would cost a fair amount of government money. But perhaps spending a little bit of government money now to overhaul our prison system might lead to lower costs for taxpayers down the road due to less people being in prison because of new, more successful policies. So why don’t we make a sacrifice in the short term to lead to lower taxes and safer streets in the long term and also the bettering of troubled people’s lives. Prisoners are people too, and we often forget that. And they are just as much a part of this country as we are. This is an issue we should care about, because it affects everyone across the nation. Let’s make our prisons productive.
James, E. (2013, September 3). Bastoy: The Norwegian prison that works. The Guardian.