For most, our understanding of prison conditions comes from movies. Only a few films come close to capturing the reality ~ The Shawshank Redemption and American Me, to name two. My exposure has been more direct. Here's how it all began ~
In 1988 I entered into a long-term relationship with a woman who was about to become a JD/PhD. That is, she was an attorney who was conducting the research and analysis required for her doctoral dissertation in psychology. Her research project was massive ~ exploring the victim-offender relationship by interviewing nearly 300 inmates in the Arizona prison system, all of whom had been convicted of violent crimes. Each interview was the same ~ asking for responses to a lengthy questionnaire, in the privacy of a room with no guards present. She also had access to prison records on her subjects, so that she could compare their responses to recorded events. It was an ambitious and impressive project.
Her trust in my intellect and my judgment was such that she asked me to join her and her TAs (teaching assistants) in administering the questionnaires. The prisoners we interviewed were detained in varying security conditions, ranging from a minimum-security prison near Tucson, and in maximum and supermax conditions at the prison in Florence. It is a very creepy feeling, even as a visitor with a clearance, to walk through the maze of secure corridors, checkpoints, surveillance, and doors which close with the ominous clang of finality.
Long story short, the interviews went without incident (except for one TA who inappropriately flirted with prisoners), my partner completed her PhD, and for the next sixteen years I followed her career around the country ~ to her internship in Charleston, SC, then to positions as a professor in Criminal Justice at universities in Philadelphia, PA; Vancouver, WA; and Johnson City, TN. During that time she devoted herself not only to teaching, but to ongoing research, publishing in professional journals, and attending CJ conferences around the country and around the world. I learned much from her about criminal justice (or the lack of it) in the United States. We had numerous discussions based on her findings, and I proofread many journal articles and was her ally in academic politics.
During those years, I worked in two settings which allowed me to experience firsthand the humanity and the struggles of those who've been through the system. In Philadelphia, I worked as a teacher and counselor for at-risk youth of both genders in a private, residential school for adolescents who'd been removed by the courts from abusive or neglectful family settings. Many of my students had brushes with the law, though that was not the reason for their being remanded to the school's custody. Nearly all were diagnosed as SED, or severely emotionally disturbed. Nearly all were in regular therapy, as well as being on medication. The setting was highly structured, with the students living in on-grounds cottages that were miniature dormitories.
As I came to know more and more individuals, I concluded that the SED label was in many cases inaccurate and unfortunate. Yes, these kids were struggling emotionally, having endured abuse or hardships on top of the hormonal confusion of adolescence. But I found that if I treated my students with affection and respect (while remaining clear about rules and consequences), and if I went out of my way to make learning both challenging and fun, they responded in kind. I'm not a large man, but I never felt unsafe, even when talking with an angry young man twice my size. I related to them as I would have wanted to be related to. The only exceptions were those times when a student had to be put into passive physical restraint to prevent harm to others or to themselves. Even then, at least two trained staff took part to minimize injury, until the student had regained self-control or had been removed to a separate room for counseling.
The second setting was in Tennessee, where I worked as a security officer and de facto counselor at a DCS boys group home. The population there was very different ~ all boys, and all had been convicted and served time for crimes which, if committed by adults, would be felonies ~ ranging from burglary to grand theft auto to murder. The home was a halfway house, where the boys were taught the skills and attitudes they would need to re-enter society, whether back with their families or not. Security was strict, and runaways were common. There were far fewer passive physical restraints, and far more personal and room searches for contraband. Nearly all the boys were wannabe thugs, and some had actual gang affiliation. They put up a hardcore front, but here too, I found that I could reach most of them as individuals by simply treating them with caring and respect (for their essential selves, not for the crimes they had committed).
In addition to annual training (alongside guards from the adult prison system), I had occasion to visit a youth detention center and an adult prison. As had been true during my help with research in Arizona, I always felt claustrophobic in lockup, but at least now I had a state ID and badge to prove my identity.
Here are several similarities and differences between the two work settings. In Philadelphia, our total population was 60, with 20 being boys. Dorms were segregated by gender, but all other activities were coed. The age range was 13-18 years old. Probably one third of the kids (and staff) were black. Most had experienced urban life on the streets, yet beyond recreational drugs or petty crimes, most had no experience with serious violations of the law. To my knowledge, very few ended up in jail or prison. Some (based on academics and behavior) were allowed to attend classes at a mainstream high school, where they experienced prejudice from other students because of where they lived. Most students were with us for 1-4 years, giving us ample opportunity to get to know them and work with them to clarify their goals and provide tools for reaching those goals.
In Tennessee, our total population was 12, all boys. The group home was a single building, with living quarters (2-4 boys per room) upstairs. The age range was 14-18 years old. Roughly half or more of the boys were black. As described above, all were convicted criminals, whose release depended on their behavior and reaching their academic and work goals while in the group home. Most had off-grounds jobs, usually at fast food joints. I have no documentation, but my hunch is that a higher proportion recidivized, i.e., committed other crimes and ended up back in the system. Most students were with us for 6-8 months, giving us little opportunity to get to know them and really work with them to change their life paths.
Within the security classification system in American prisons, both settings were minimum security. Escape was not that difficult. It was important to help each young person understand that it was in their own interest to stick it out, and to leave the right way. Most succeeded.
In an actual prison, things would have been much different. There, the guard-inmate relationship is all about power, and is often predatory. U.S. prisons are, in my opinion, based on a very medieval concept of punishment and isolation from society. My onetime partner firmly felt that true rehabilitation had never been meaningfully attempted in American prisons, and I believe that. Except for minimum security facilities, prison is a grim, often violent place. It is a whole different world with its own language, status hierarchy, rules, group (gang) affiliation, and consequences for mistakes. And that's just in the context of other inmates. A prisoner's treatment by guards can be just as savage, or even more so. One study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that "at least 216,600 inmates were [sexually] victimized in 2008 alone. Contrary to popular belief, most of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members ~ corrections officers whose job it is to keep inmates safe. On average, each victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year. The vast majority were too fearful of reprisals to seek help or file a formal complaint."
According to another report, "In 1980, there were about 220 people incarcerated for every 100,000 Americans. By 2010, the number had more than tripled, to 731. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education .... The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least 50,000 men ~ a full house at Yankee Stadium ~ wake in solitary confinement, often in supermax prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they can see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour's solo 'exercise'. (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.) Prison rape is so endemic ~ more than 70,000 prisoners are raped each year ~ that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected."
Here's another aspect of the American penal system which I find disturbing ~ outsourcing the construction, staffing, and management of prisons (which are government functions with at least nominal government oversight) to private, for-profit companies. The stated intent is to save money, but the reverse holds true. The privatization of prisons ensures that the least qualified applicants will be hired as guards and supervisors, that staff brutality will go unreported, and that the quality (such as it is) of service provided will be poor to non-existent. It's like one of the Apollo astronauts commented to his two capsule mates just before launch, in words to the effect of "Yeah, I feel supremely confident. Here we are, sitting on top of a rocket full of fuel, made up of a million components, all assembled by the lowest bidders. What could go wrong?"
Here's one example of what could go wrong. A Justice Policy Institute report states that "the political strategies of private prison companies 'work to make money through harsh policies and longer sentences.' The report's authors note that while the total number of people in prison increased less than 16 percent, the number of people held in private federal and state facilities increased by 120 and 33 percent, correspondingly. Government spending on corrections has soared since 1997 by 72 percent, up to $74 billion in 2007. And the private prison industry has raked in tremendous profits. Last year the two largest private prison companies ~ Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group ~ made over $2.9 billion in revenue. JPI claims the private industry isn't merely responding to the nation's incarceration woes. It has actively sought to create the market conditions (i.e., more prisoners) necessary to expand its business.
"According to JPI, the private prison industry uses three strategies to influence public policy ~ lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and networking. The three main companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts."
I started this post describing my own experiences with the criminal justice and mental health systems. I expanded my comments to include broader systemic practices and policies. I'd like to conclude by taking one more step back for perspective. I just received the ACLU's winter 2012 edition of their national newsletter, Civil Liberties. The lead article shares its title with the title of this post ~ "A Nation Behind Bars". The captions of several illustrations in the article are instructive.
~ Nearly half of all state prisoners are locked up for nonviolent offenses.
~ The United States prison population rose by 700% from 1970 to 2005, a rate far outpacing that of general population growth (44%) and crime rates.
~ By 2007, states spent more than $44 billion on incarceration and related expenses, a 127% jump from 1987. Over this same period, spending on higher education rose just 21%.
Here's the single slap-in-the-face fact that should linger for any reader ~ "With an incarcerated population of well over 2 million, the United States has earned the disgraceful distinction of being the world's largest jailer, ahead of China and Russia. We have 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners.
" .... How did we get to this point? Blame it on policies of the past 40 years such as the 'War on Drugs' and 'Tough on Crime', which have produced legislation such as 'Three Strikes, You're Out' and mandatory minimum sentencing, These policies ~ based not on sober scientific fact, but on fear ~ have done little to protect the public, while overcrowding prisons, burdening taxpayers, and normalizing an overly punitive mindset that turns to incarceration as a first, rather than a last, resort.
"What's more, African Americans and Latinos disproportionately bear the brunt of the over-incarceration crisis because of discriminatory laws and biased enforcement and sentencing, even though white Americans commit crimes at the same rates as people of color. A schocking one in nine young black men (aged 20-24) is behind bars.
"Another disturbing trend resulting from our nation's over-reliance on incarceration and excessive sentencing is the rise in the number of elderly prisoners ~ the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. It costs two to three times more to house elderly prisoners than younger people. At the same time, an increase in age is correlated with a diminishing risk of recidivism. So, until we change our practices, the United States will continue to waste vast resources on people who no longer pose a threat to the community.
" .... We have become a nation behind bars and a prisoner to a broken correctional system. The time for reform is now." When you treat people like animals, eventually many can't help but behave like animals. Ironically, we wouldn't even treat animals like we treat each other. Our prisons are little more than vicious crime schools, little pieces of hell. What does that say about us as a society?