American prison system must serve to rehabilitate, not punish


Oliver Tonkin 

Oliver Tonkin

Oliver Tonkin | DN

Several years ago I worked as a correctional officer at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. I didn’t fit the profile for a prison guard. There I was, some 19-year-old punk with long hair and tinted glasses — a remnant of trying to be cool in high school. I was completely naïve about prison culture. I did well in the interview, despite my cringe-worthy question at the end about whether I would have to cut my hair. They offered me the job at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. I was intrigued and wanted a decent payday, so I accepted.

The environment was exciting and kinetic in between periods of boredom and constant negativity. I usually walked the yard as an ERT, a first responder to emergency situations, or worked in the visiting room, where inmates saw their friends and family. We strip searched inmates before and after visits. I saw enough naked men to last 1,000 lifetimes. I broke up a few fights, suited up in riot gear and requisitioned contraband. Sometimes some of us would play basketball in the prison gym after shifts. We quit that once one of the fellas got busted for allegedly bringing marijuana for the inmates.

I enjoyed my time there, but the novelty wore off. My colleagues often exhibited a fatalistic attitude toward the guests of the Pen. Injustices, racial and gender discrimination and resentment were common. The worst of humanity. Most of my colleagues acted in a professional manner, but even the best became consumed with the negativity dominating the environment.

The purpose of our judicial system is to deter crime and enact retribution on those who break the law. Our current system fails this mandate. Even if it were successful, it’s time to reconsider altering the entire system rather than trying to reconcile the many problems within it.

The United States currently has 2.2 million people incarcerated, and more than 7 million still remain under correctional supervision. The U.S. makes up 5 percent of the global population, yet we incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s inmate population. Either we are a highly immoral people, or there’s something wrong with our current system.

Nebraska itself has nine state prisons housing 4,730 inmates, exceeding its intended capacity by more than 50 percent. Similarly, the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce or move its prison population by 30,000 in 2011 because of conditions deemed to contravene the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment. They simply transferred them to county jails, which only delays the problem and shifts part of the burden to local facilities meant for short-term incarceration. From 1970 to 2005, prison population grew 700 percent — at a faster pace than crime and the 44 percent increase in population.

Overpopulation is a symptom of a larger problem. The proliferation of private prisons contributes to the problem in a sinister way. Lobbyists for private prisons will help write legislature that mandates a 90 percent occupancy in prisons, forcing the government to pay the difference if there are fewer inmates. They also advocate for stricter drug and immigration laws.

Correctional institutions don’t correct people. Two in three prisoners will be arrested again, and more than half will be back in prison before long. We cast away human beings who have been convicted of a crime and set them up for failure. Many lost the right to vote and the ability to serve in jury duty. Businesses are much less likely to hire persons convicted of a felon.

It’s worse for minorities. According to Devah Pager, a researcher at Princeton University, a white male felon is at least as likely to receive employment consideration as a black male without a criminal record. There has been a clear systematic bias against minorities when it comes to arrests, convictions and sentencing.

Though racial and ethnic minorities make up 30 percent of the population, they make up 60 percent of prison population. Already historically discriminated against for voting rights and employment, minorities face more difficulty when looking for jobs and are not able to participate in the democratic process.

African Americans in particular are disproportionately represented in prisons. One in three black males have been incarcerated at some point. African Americans on average receive 10 percent longer sentences, are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences and 20 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison than a white person for the same crime.One in 106 white males are currently incarcerated as opposed to one in 15 African-American males.

We need to redefine our purpose for the judicial system. Nebraska will receive assistance from the Council of State Governments to offer alternatives to incarceration and increased rehabilitative options. This is a great step, but it’s not enough. A restorative framework works best, and it’s extremely effective. Norway has the lowest recidivism in the world, and the country has a completely different prison system than the U.S.

Norway gives inmates more autonomy, fewer restrictions, and more educational and work opportunities. They serve less time and rarely re-offend. Critics may argue we shouldn’t treat criminals with such comfort, but it works. Norway has perhaps the best justice system in the world. Crime is low, and people are happy and safe. Furthermore, it’s a significantly cheaper way of administering justice.

My best memories working at the Pen were escorting inmates to the dog kennel area where they would train all kinds of wonderful dogs, many of whom would otherwise be euthanized. I saw the best in humanity in those moments; people full of compassion, empathy, hard work and unconditional love. I’m not sure if it was the inmates who saved the dogs — or vice versa. Other prisons use similar approaches that achieve restorative results.

Instead of trying to punish people, we can educate and rehabilitate them to become better citizens. Profound challenges need to be addressed, specifically racial discrimination, sentencing guidelines and privatization of justice. We can look to other places in the world to help us reform our system. I refuse to believe Americans are four times more criminal than the rest of the world. It’s the system that’s wrong, not the people.

Oliver Tonkin is a political science, global studies and Latin American studies major. Reach him at opinion@dailynebraskan.com.

Via @ Daily Nebraskan

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