There are three major population groups imprisoned in the U.S. today. The first are the not-really-guilty. They may have taken a plea deal or pled guilty to a misdemeanor to be released from county jail, only to later violate probation. They may have been found guilty by a jury of not-really-peers.
Then there are those guilty of crimes but not truly dangers to society. Prostitution, writing bad checks, small-time drug dealing, and shoplifting are all associated with poverty. Crimes of poverty would be better prevented than punished.
Last there are those guilty of violent crimes, of rape and murder and child abuse. While these are the crimes discussed when building new prisons and passing strict laws, the sentences for violent crimes are often lower than sentences for drug crimes, thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing legislation.
Prison reformers generally want to focus discussion on the first two populations, because they are sympathetic. Most people can see that a mom who writes a bad utilities check when money is short doesn’t belong behind bars. For the purpose of this post, I want to focus on that last group and why I want better prisons even for them.
The first question you must ask when reforming prisons is what are they for? Answers differ based on who you ask. To politicians they are a means of looking tough on crime. To victims seeking justice, they are a possible measure of safety. To prison owners they are a profit-generation industry, from government contracts to legalized slave labor. To religions, they are a mission ground and captive audience. To some the goal is rehabilitation and to others it is punishment.
The first goal of prison reform is ending the practice of private ownership of for-profit prisons, and I agree with this. Prisons focused on making money are not invested in the public good. Rehabilitation is not their goal; recidivism is repeat business. Lobbying groups for such prisons may back tough crime legislation, but they never seem to support an increased minimum wage or guaranteed minimum income, things which would reduce crimes of poverty.
I want society to be able to remove threats from society as humanely as possible. I want people who won’t play well with others kept physically apart from those who will. And I want that removal reserved for the violent and guilty.
I don’t want prisons to be torturous or unsafe, even for the truly guilty. I don’t want guards to be abusive or cruel, even to abusers. Because while those may be intended as deterrents to crime, they are actually deterrents to reporting crime. Kids being abused by parents love those parents and don’t want to send them to be beaten or starved.
I want prisons to be so nice, no judge can determine the rich and powerful they convict are too good for it. I want them so nice no victim puts off reporting their abuser. I want them so nice that no rape victim is ever scolded for “ruining” their rapist’s life. I want prisons we aren’t afraid to use.