Crisis Builds over Americas Prison System

Let’s pretend you’re a banker reviewing a loan application. A large business comes to you with the need for money to build other locations. This business has been around for years, but it only meets its objective about 30% of the time. In other words, it fails to fulfill its mission with 70% of its customers.

This is the scenario in the USA prison system. National statistics show about 70% of inmates will return to prison. That, my friend, is what I would call a proven failure. Yet we are driven by politicians and ignorance to build more and more prisons. It’s easy to be incensed by crime and want to punish the offenders, but it’s not so easy to think through the issues to design a plan that takes a more comprehensive approach.

Prisons are big business – about $2.8 billion in Texas alone. Folks, that’s real money. Only lately have some leaders been putting pressure on the system to show results. The industry has been like a sacred cow we are afraid to touch. It’s time we demand better results.

As a society, we should be looking at other methods to handle our crime problem, including early prevention, intervention, treatment, alternate punishment, expanded social programs and better handling of those leaving prison. Many of these programs have been successful, but are hampered by a lack of funding.

One largely unaddressed problem is the built-in conflict of interest in our prison system. The same people that make their living from prisons are the same people that are charged with making sure they don’t return. This is like the proverbial fox guarding the hen house. In most systems, the warden is like a god with little accountability to anyone – except to make sure no one escapes.

We are now realizing the unintended affects of incarcerating millions of people. For example, 97% of inmates get divorced while inside or within three years after release. These broken families in turn breed more crime and the children of inmates are now 6-8 times as likely to end up in prison as the average child.

Prisons become a crime college for many inmates. They may enter the system with a minor crime, but now are exposed to all kinds of committed criminals, new schemes to avoid detection, better ways to steal and fence their ill-gotten gains, connections to other criminals on the outside, sources for drugs, methods to manufacture speed and a host of other “opportunities.” Think for a minute. If your child misbehaved, would you say to yourself, “I’ll show that kid. I’m gonna make him hang around the worst kids in the neighborhood. That will teach him to be good.”

The obvious instinct for a parent would be to try to remove a child from further temptation. Many of those going to prison are children or young adults. We should be concerned that our actions don’t cause more harm than good. Punishment should have a place and, yes, prisons definitely have a place too. However, we are overusing prisons as the only alternative in most cases.

What should we do? Make sure prisons aren’t being used as the only method of punishment. Demand alternative treatments. If we spend a billion dollars on prisons, let’s spend at least half that amount on other methods. With some smart thinking, we can do much better with our money and certainly expect reduced concerns over crime.