Incarceration and Justice

It's hard to ignore the razor wire, even after three months. Every day walking into the prison was a reminder that these men, despite everything genuine and positive about them, are being warehoused in a giant box, rotting away from society. It's not that prisons aren't necessary. After Inside-Out, I am almost reinforced in the idea that a justice system needs a form of punishment to back the rule of law. But this system lacks empathy. It lacks understanding. Or maybe it recognizes both of these important human traits and seeks to exploit human failure and capitalize on human suffering. Either way, we have reached a point in our society where the ideas we have about prisons and justice are so far removed from the reality that we have allowed this grotesque beast to propagate amongst us. During this class, I met some of the most talented individuals I will ever again encounter. Most of the men in the class were very straightforward and admitted their mistakes against society. Many took prison to be a turnaround point in their lives. Many had aspiring goals in society upon release. Those were the success stories. The smart people who had bad luck for a while and made mistakes but have used the system to make amends. But for each of these men, there are failures. There are even smart, talented young men in the program that would be considered failures to the system. The Department of Justice admits that 70% of all convicted citizens will re-offend and serve time upon release. If the goal of the prison system is to turn criminals into productive members of society, then the failures vastly outweigh the successes.

Maybe I just don't understand people like I thought I did, but when I meet a young man who is a product of the system, who has served time, re-offended, and served again, I have to believe that this system failed him, not the other way around. A young man kicked out of foster care at 18, with no education, had the only means of income available to someone in that situation: selling cannabis. After serving time, with no additional education, no additional work skills, no support from the system that denied him everything as a child; he did it again.

So there are some glaring issues with the concept that prison is just for punishment. Are we so archaic in society that we believe there is no means of changing someone we brand a 'criminal'? Would anyone turn down any opportunity to provide food and shelter to their family? If we cannot accept that there are structural boundaries and institutional problems putting a majority of the people in prison, then nothing will ever change.

It's not even that government prisons have to fundamentally change. In many prisons there are educational programs to help incarcerated citizens change their lives. But when a child cannot get a quality education, they are not given many choices on avoiding prison. When cannabis laws target primarily low-income minorities, putting them in prison does not make their lives better: it makes getting a job near impossible, it makes government housing impossible. It makes welfare impossible. Yet, these drug offenders are not given rehabilitation facilities; more often than not, drug availability in prison is better than on the street. I have yet be in a prison where an inmate said it was harder to get narcotics than on the outside.

Through learning with incarcerated students, Inside-Out brought my attention to some of the problems with our current prison system. I believe that it is a great way for someone who has never faced incarceration or the wrong side of the law to see how complicity in this system is robbing us all of our humanity. Not speaking out against private prisons, unjust laws, and lack of quality education means that at any second, the tables could turn and we could be the one behind bars. It is not hard to fall from grace, and in America, you do not often get up after that fall. For so many of our own citizens, lack of education and employment push them to do things we would all do ourselves if necessary. For so many of our citizens, we turn our backs on them.

-Ben H.

Lewis and Clark College Outside Alumnus