America’s Prison Problem

This article about a reporter who worked as a guard at a private prison in Louisiana is long, but it is a must read. Reading it so soon after that last season of Orange is the New Black, it was really grueling (there’s nothing about the show in the article). If you were wondering if for profit prisons are as bad as they are depicted in the show, the answer unfortunately is, they are worse. And the most enraging thing? For profit prisons are designed to keep people in the criminal justice system so they can continue to get paid for warehousing people.

We as a country need to ask if we want to continue spending millions to imprison people in depraved circumstances indefinitely, or if we want to set up a society that focuses on prevention and rehabilitation. There are many ways to do this. Improve our schools. Decriminalize drugs. Make sure every woman who wants birth control has affordable access to it. Increase funding for mental health services and respite care for people caring for family members with mental illness. Raise the minimum wage and tie it to inflation.

And how about instead of giving prisons incentives to warehouse people, give them incentives for releasing prisoners who do not re-offend?

How about giving money to communities that find creative ways to reduce the recidivism rate?

The US has 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s prison population. The US has the highest prison population rate in the world. This is a travesty.

I will always remember the first client I worked with who was sent to prison. She was an older woman who had lived a hard life. She had been raped repeatedly as a child and as an adult had a string of relationships with men who abused her. Like a lot of people struggling with substance use, she was self-medicating for the trauma she had experienced. She had been to prison, and after she was released, fell back in with another drug dealer.

After his place was raided, she came to our clinic in the hopes that by completing our program she could avoid another prison sentence. She was a model client and rather nurturing to the younger clients. She was able to find and hold down a job. She had never done it before and was proud of herself for doing it. She had also never lived without a man before, and I remembered her joy at discovering shows that she wanted to watch and having control over the tv remote. “All my life I’ve always had to watch what my boyfriend wanted to watch. I never got to find and watch tv shows I liked before!” That sentiment was mind blowing to me, but it later became a common sentiment I heard from women in abusive relationships.

The judge, though, wanted to make an example of her and sent her back to prison.

My co-workers and I were distraught about it. None of us felt safer thinking she was in prison. While I have worked with some scary and intimidating people, she was not one of them.

I want to point out a few things. For the first time in her life she had a steady job and was doing well at it. But since she was sentenced to a multi-year prison sentence, she had to leave her job. When she gets out, she will have to start over again.

She was also learning to live without a man for the first time in her life. People with substance use problems have a hard time living without romantic relationships and a lot of therapy focuses on helping them learn to be comfortable with who they are as a person first before getting into a relationship.

She was also active and engaged in therapy and making good progress. While she could have been pulling the wool over our eyes, I would much rather make the mistake of trying to help someone who is manipulating me than refuse to help someone who is really wanting to make a positive change in their life because I am scared of them pulling the wool over my eyes. She attended therapy regularly, she had good things to say and to contribute, and she was making big changes in her life. She was the type of client who made working there worth it.

Going to prison disrupts all of that. When she gets out, she will have to start all over again with no foundation. And for what purpose? To teach her a lesson? If a stint in prison was helpful in getting people to stop committing crimes, then we wouldn’t have so many repeat offenders.

Further, drug addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (which she had) are mental illnesses. She needed treatment, she did not need to be punished for having a mental illness.

If she had stayed out with the stipulation that she continue to receive treatment, then that time could be used for a productive purpose. Best case scenario she would have three years good work history, have completed her associates (which she waned to do), and three years of counseling to help her cope with PTSD and substance use. Three years of prison would leave her worse off than when she got in. It didn’t help her, and consequently, did not help our society because we ended up paying for her prison sentence rather than help someone become a productive member of society.

Working with people in the criminal justice system, it’s hard to vilify them. Yes, they could annoy me and some were real good at pushing my buttons and some I found to be completely exasperating. However, when you see the story of their life, it’s very easy to see why they are the way they are. Prison isn’t going to fix that. It’s time to start funneling money into programs that will.

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