In this midst of inconsistent laws, overcrowded prisons, and precarious conditions, the penitentiary system has lost the focus on the most important purpose of prison: the protection of society. The utilitarian rationale argues that this goal can be achieved with a punishment system that aims to discourage criminal behaviors by incapacitating and rehabilitating criminals. In the current scenario, the American system of incarceration only achieves relative success in incapacitating convicts. However, even as prisons keep convicts from causing any more harm to the outside society, there is no incapacitation behind bars. The environment of prison actually becomes more propitious to problems like violence, gangs, and traffic.
The goal of incapacitation is also temporary. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that over two thirds of former prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release. In the 1970’s, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals stated that it would not be long before prisons were terminated. According to the institution, "the prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it" (Alexander 8).
To succeed in avoiding crime, the penitentiary system should focus on the rehabilitation of criminals. The Prison Initiative Policy asserted that over 200,000 of state prisoners are serving sentence because of drug related crimes, while nearly 150,000 are serving from public order offenses such as carrying weapons (Wagner, Sakala “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie”). These common types of crime are very easy to fall back into, and are especially encouraged if the criminals return to the same environment they lived in before. After years in prison, in an environment where the violence and selfishness of human nature is aggravated, it is even harder to lead a lawful life.
In an article entitled “Punishment fails. Rehabilitation works.,” on The New York Times, law professor James Gilligan defends the utilitarian ideal that prison should incapacitate criminals, while creating a safe and “constructive” (Gilligan) environment that will be reflected in the conduct of prisoners. The professor also asserts that university programs in prison are the only ones able to be “100 percent effective for years or decades at a time in preventing recidivism” (Gilligan).
At a speech at the Ross School, writer D. Watkins claimed he wanted to help achieve equality and peace in the world through literacy. He argued that reading supplies the mind with the words it needs to elaborate complex thoughts. Education is the antidote to what journalist Chris Lebron calls being “morally lazy” (Lebron "What, To the Black American, Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?"). Reading, reflecting, questioning, are essential for people to start analyzing their surroundings as they discover who they are, and what they need and deserve. Proving Lebron’s statement, former convict Arlander Brown said, “As you learn to be a better critical reader you learn to be a better self-critic, too” (Gregory “Pictures from an Institution”).
Brown received a liberal arts diploma after he was released from prison. While incarcerated, he joined the Bard Prison Initiative, a program led by Bard College that presents a selective and challenging curriculum to prisoners, identical to that offered at Bard. Since 2001, the B.P.I. has enrolled 300 students each semester. Becoming the greatest university-led education program in the American penitentiary system, Bard has been joined by many other universities and is now present in 9 states.
The Bard Prison Initiative started with a mere sophomore from Bard. Max Kenner began to think about this project after prisoners were denied the right to receive the Pell college tuition grants. His idea has now changed the lives of hundreds of former prisoners who come out of prison with the best tool for reintegration into society, education. Along with education, Kenner’s example reveals another very simple solution that helps prisoners adjust to life post-incarceration: respect. When citizens start to recognize former convicts as worthy of the same rights and dignity, they are able to come up with ideas like the Bard Prison Initiative that create a more humanizing, and restorative system of justice.
There is an absurd amount of prejudice regarding those who have served time. It seems like many laws and rights do not apply to someone after he/she acquires a criminal record. Article 23 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states, “everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment”. Nonetheless, many job applications ask about criminal record, a question that substantially influences the employer’s decision. In 2004, a movement called Ban the Box was created to remove the questions regarding criminal record from job applications and other forms. Even though discrimination against ex-convicts in the work place is still very much perceptible, the movement has been fairly successful, causing changes in over 45 cities across the world.
While independent initiatives have created great impact to prisoners’ lives, the American government is the biggest propeller in what Michelle Alexander calls a “legalized discrimination” (1). She insightfully describes the life of a former convict: “today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow” (Alexander 2).
Shamefully, Alexander is entirely right in her accusations. For instance, there is a law that prohibits those formerly convicted of drug related crimes from receiving food stamps and money assistance. Even though states have the authority to change this law, only nine have completely banned it. This is a clear offense to Article 25 of the Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is a list of thirty rights that the UN believes every human being is entitled to, for the simple reason of being human. The fact that a law denies the access to government support to certain citizens, plainly illustrates how convicts are regarded as second-class citizens, and as if deprived of humanity.
“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”
If there is one similarity between the 20th century Surrealist Art Movement and the American Penitentiary System, it is that they both require to be examined from deep within. They demand a look beyond the surface. They need people to dispose of their mental lethargy, and to start examining their surroundings.
The real problem of incarceration in America lies at its essence, which is carefully hidden under a pile of other problems. The surface is so tightly packed by a plethora of deficiencies, that the nature of the penitentiary system cannot even be found to be questioned. Government budget, political manipulation, concealed violence; these are not the real problems of prisons in America. They are the mere consequences of the conflict at the core of American incarceration. The catalyst of the prisons’ decay is the fact that, in the middle of the 21st century (and freedom-inspired words), the Unites States of America cultivates a retributive system of justice.
These external problems have been created by the neglect that has been perpetrated towards the system of incarceration and its victims. Far from the utilitarian ideal of respecting prisoners and preparing prisoners for the reintegration into society, the American penitentiary system is dangerously approaching the line that separates retributive punishment from revenge. It shows no more concern for its criminals, who are simply locked away from society, tossed aside, enduring the challenges of prison until they day they will be released into a society that will reject them.
This rejection is mainly stimulated by the government that, as it establishes legal restrictions upon former prisoners, encourages prejudice in society. The American government has been fortifying retributive feelings of anger, neglect and prejudice on its people. Feelings like these, are the reason that officer Darren Wilson thought 18-year-old Michael Brown “deserved” to be shot six shots (he missed the other six) after they had a fight. Also aggravated by racial motives, Wilson’s actions reflect the ideas of a revenge culture, where people start to take “justice” into their own hands. The same revenge culture that was present in brutal 5th century Greece, and that will soon earn a 21st century version of the Oresteia. The American Penitentiary System shows more than just a retributive system of punishment, it reflects its nation retributive sense of order. Look again, ceci n’est pas justice.
Beccaria, Cesare. An Essay on Crimes and Punishments. London: Printed for J. Almon, 1767. Print.
Hughes, Ted. The Oresteia. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977. Print.
"PressTV-Americans Protest US Prison Violations." PressTV-Americans Protest US Prison Violations. Web. 20 Jan. 2015. .
Pollock, Jocelyn. "The Rationale for Imprisonment." The Philosophy and History of Prisons. San Marcos: Texas State U-San Marcos, 2005. Print.
Liptak, Adam. "U.S. Prison Population Dwarfs That of Other Nations." The New York Times. 23 Apr. 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. .
Gilligan, James. "Punishment Fails. Rehabilitation Works." The New York Times. 19 Dec. 2012. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. .
Lebron, Chris. "What, To the Black American, Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?" The New York Times. 18 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Jan. 2015. .
Gregory, Alice, and Arlander Brown. "Pictures from an Institution." The New Yorker. 9 Sept. 2014. Web. 7 Nov. 2014. .
"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Declaration, Human Rights Charter, The Un and Human Rights." UN News Center. UN. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. .
Wagner, Peter, and Leah Sakala. "Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie ." Prison Policy Initiative. 12 Mar. 2014. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. .
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised ed. New York: New, 2010. Print.