Is the Solution Part of the Problem?

“Demeaning and demoralizing prisoners is the worst way to prepare them for the world outside.”—AN EDITORIAL IN THE ATLANTA CONSTITUTION.

IN MANY cases prisons simply act as a restraint—and a temporary one at that. When a prisoner is released, has he really paid for his crime? * What about the victims or their loved ones? “I  am the mother of a murdered child,” pleaded Rita when the convicted killer of her 16-year-old son was released after serving only a three-year sentence. “Please stop for a moment. Think. Can you begin to imagine what this means?” As Rita’s case illustrates, tragedy often lingers long after the courts have finished their business and the headlines have faded.

This issue is of concern not only to those whose lives have been touched by crime but also to everyone else. After all, whether released prisoners have been rehabilitated or simply hardened by their experience behind bars has a direct bearing on your peace of mind if not on your very safety.

Schools for Criminals

The prison system does not always quell criminal behavior. “When money is poured into building another prison cell at the expense of rebuilding a prisoner’s self-image, it is often just a prelude to more—and worse—crime,” writes Jill Smolowe in Time magazine. Peter, * who has spent 14 years behind bars, would agree with that statement. “Most of my fellow inmates started off with petty crime, then they moved up to property crime, and finally they graduated to serious offenses against other humans,” he says. “For them, prisons are like trade schools. They’re going to come out worse.”

While prisons may take criminals off the streets for a while, it seems that they do little—if anything—to deter crime in the long term. Inner-city boys and young men often view imprisonment as an initiation rite. Very often they end up becoming hardened offenders. “Prison doesn’t rehabilitate you at all,” says Larry, who has spent much of his life in and out of jail. “These guys come out and do the same thing all over again.”

This ‘revolving door’ may explain why, according to one study in the United States, 50 percent of all serious crimes are committed by about 5 percent of the criminals. “When prisoners have no constructive way to spend their time,” remarks Time magazine, “they often fill the hours building a reservoir of resentment, not to mention a grab bag of criminal tricks, that . . . they will take back to the streets.”

The situation is not unique to the United States. John Vatis, a physician at a military prison in Greece, states: “Our prisons have become very good at producing people who are menacing, violent, and mean. When released, most inmates want to ‘square up’ with society.”

The Social Cost

The prison crisis reaches right into your wallet. It is estimated that in the United States, for example, each prisoner costs taxpayers about $21,000 annually. Inmates over the age of 60 can cost three times that amount. In many countries public  confidence in the penal system is waning for additional reasons. There are concerns about prematurely released criminals as well as offenders who manage to avoid prison sentences altogether because of some legal technicality discovered by an astute lawyer. Usually, victims do not feel sufficiently protected against further violation, and they may have little voice in the legal process.

Public Concern Grows

Public confidence in the prison system is not helped by the inhumane conditions to which prisoners are exposed, as described in the accompanying box. Prisoners who have suffered unjust treatment while serving their sentences are hardly candidates for rehabilitation. Then, too, a number of human rights groups are concerned about the disproportionate numbers of members of minority groups who are found in prisons. They question whether this is a coincidence or the result of racial discrimination.

A 1998 Associated Press report drew attention to the plight of ex-prisoners of the Holmesburg Prison, in Pennsylvania, U.S.A., who sought compensation for having allegedly been used as human guinea pigs in chemical experiments while imprisoned. And what about the reintroduction of chain gangs in the United States? Amnesty International reports: “Work on the gang lasts for 10-12 hours often in hot sun, with very brief breaks for water, and an hour for lunch. . . . The only toilet facility available to chain gang inmates is a portable chamber pot behind a make-shift screen. Inmates remain chained together while using it. When the chamber pot is inaccessible, inmates are forced to squat down on the ground in public.” Of course, not all prisons operate that way. Nevertheless, inhumane treatment dehumanizes both the prisoners and those who mete it out.

Are Community Interests Served?

Naturally, most communities feel safer when dangerous criminals are behind bars. Other communities like prisons for different reasons. When a prison in the small Australian town of Cooma was to be closed, people protested. Why? Because the prison provided employment for the economically struggling community.

In recent times some governments have sold their prisons to private enterprise as a cost-saving measure. Unfortunately, more prisoners and longer sentences are good for business. Thus, justice can become mixed up with commercialism.

All told, the fundamental question remains: Do prisons rehabilitate criminals? While the answer is often negative, you may be surprised to learn that some inmates have been helped to change. Let us see how.


^ par. 3 Although we refer to prisoners in the masculine gender, the principles discussed generally refer to both male and female inmates.

^ par. 6 Some names in this article have been changed.

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 A Brief Look Behind Bars

OVERCROWDING: Prisons in Britain have an acute overcrowding problem, and no wonder! That land has the second highest per capita prison population in all of Western Europe, with 125 prisoners for every 100,000 of the population. In Brazil, São Paulo’s largest prison is built to hold 500 inmates. Instead, it houses 6,000. In Russia, cells that should hold 28 inmates are housing between 90 and 110. The problem is so severe that prisoners must sleep in shifts. In an Asian country, 13 or 14 prisoners have been crowded into a 30-square-foot [3 sq m] cell. Meanwhile, in Western Australia, officials have coped with lack of space by using shipping containers to house prisoners.

VIOLENCE: The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reports that in German prisons brutal inmates kill and torture because of “the war of competing cliques for illegal business in alcohol and narcotics, sex, and usury.” Ethnic tensions often fan the flames of prison violence. “There are convicts from 72 nations,” notes Der Spiegel. “Friction and conflicts leading to violence are unavoidable.” In one South American jail, the officials said that on the average, 12 prisoners were killed every month. Inmates said that the number was twice as high, reported the Financial Times of London.

SEXUAL ABUSE: In the article “The Rape Crisis Behind Bars,” The New York Times states that a conservative estimate is that in the United States, “more than 290,000 males are sexually assaulted behind bars every year.” The report continues: “The catastrophic experience of sexual violence usually extends beyond a single incident, often becoming a daily assault.” One organization estimates that in U.S. prisons, some 60,000 unwanted sexual acts take place every day.

HEALTH AND HYGIENE: The spread of sexually transmitted diseases among the prison population is well documented. Tuberculosis among prisoners in Russia and some African countries attracts worldwide publicity, as does the neglect in the fields of medical treatment, hygiene, and nutrition in many prisons around the world.


An overcrowded prison in São Paulo, Brazil

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AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

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The maximum-security prison La Santé in Paris, France

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AP Photo/Francois Mori

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Women in prison in Managua, Nicaragua

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AP Photo/Javier Galeano