Prisons In America Essay Research Paper America

Prisons In America Essay, Research Paper

America’s prisons have been called "graduate schools for crime." It

stands to reason: Take a group of people, strip them of possessions and privacy,

expose them to constant threats of violence, overcrowd their cell- block,

deprive them of meaningful work, and the result is an embittered underclass more

intent on getting even with society than contributing to it. Prisons take the

nonviolent offender and make him live by violence. They take the nonviolent

offender and make him a hardened killer. America has to wake up and realize that

the current structure of our penal system is failing terribly. The government

has to devise new ways to punish the guilty, and still manage to keep American

citizens satisfied that our prison system is still effective. Americans pay a

great deal for prisons to fail so badly. Like all big government solutions, they

are expensive. In the course of my studies dealing with the criminal justice

system, I have learned that the government spends approximately eighty-thousand

dollars to build one cell, and $28,000 per year to keep a prisoner locked up.

That’s about the same as the cost of sending a student to Harvard. Because of

overcrowding, it is estimated that more than ten-billion dollars in construction

is needed to create sufficient space for just the current prison population. The

plain truth is that the very nature of prison, no matter how humane society

attempts to make it, produces an environment that is inevitably devastating to

its residents. Even if their release is delayed by longer sentences, those

residents inevitably return to damage the community, and we are paying top

dollar to make this possible. Why should tax payers be forced to pay amounts to

keep nonviolent criminals sitting in prison cells where they become bitter and

more likely to repeat their offenses when they are released? Instead, why not

put them to work outside prison where they could pay back the victims of their

crimes? The government should initiate work programs; where the criminal is

given a job and must relinquish his or her earnings to the victim of their crime

until the mental and physical damages of their victims are sufficed. A court

will determine how much money the criminal will have to pay for his restitution

costs, and what job the criminal will have to do to pay back that restitution.

The most obvious benefit of this approach is that it takes care of the victim,

the forgotten person in the current system. Those who experience property crime

deserve more than just the satisfaction of seeing the offender go to prison.

Daniel Van Ness, president of Justice Fellowship, has said: All the legal

systems which helped form western law emphasize the need for offenders to settle

with victims. The offense was seen as primarily a violation against the victim.

While the common welfare had been violated and the community therefore had an

interest and responsibility in seeing that the wrong was addressed and the

offender punished, the offense was not considered primarily a crime against the

state as it is today. (76) Restitution offers the criminal a means to restore

himself-to undergo a real change of character. Mere imprisonment cannot do this;

nothing can destroy a man’s soul more surely than living without useful work and

purpose. Feodor Dostoevsky, a prisoner for ten years during czarist repression,

wrote, "If one wanted to crush, to annihilate a man utterly, to inflict on

him the most terrible of punishments…one need only give him work on a

completely useless and irrational character" (77). This is exactly what

goes on in the "make work" approach of our prisons and it is one of

the contributing factors to prison violence. To quote Jack Kemp, author of Crime

and Punishment in Modern America: The idea that a burglar should return stolen

goods, pay for damage to the house he broke into and pay his victims for the

time lost from work to appear at a trial meets with universal support from the

American people. There is, of course, a reason that the concept of restitution

appeals to America’s sense of justice. Restitution also provides an alternative

to imprisonment for nonviolent criminals, reducing the need for taxpayers to

continue building prisons. (54) Working with the purpose of paying back someone

that has been wronged allows a criminal to understand and deal with the real

consequences of his actions. Restitution would be far less expensive than the

current system. Experience shows that the cost per prisoner can be as low as ten

percent of that of incarceration, depending on the degree of supervision

necessary. Removing nonviolent offenders from prison would also relieve

overcrowding, eliminating the necessity of appropriating billions more public

dollars for prison construction. Restitution would deter crime with the same

effectiveness as prison. Prisons themselves have not done much of a job when it

comes to deterrence. Nations with the highest incarceration rates often have the

highest crime rates. But studies of model restitution programs demonstrate that

they greatly reduce the incidence of further crime, since they restore a sense

of individual responsibility, making the offender more likely to be able to

adjust to society. Reducing recidivism is the most direct way to reduce crime.

Criminal justice authorities also tell us that it is not so much the type of

punishment that deters crime, but rather the certainty of punishment. With

respect to deterrence, virtually any sanction, imposed swiftly and surely, has a

deterrent effect. An effectively run restitution program will deter crime. It is

believed that in many cases, aggressive restitution programs would be a greater

deterrent than the threat of prison. To quote author David Simon, I remember

talking in prison with a hardened convict who had spent nineteen of his

thirty-eight years locked up. He was in for a heavy narcotics offense that drew

a mandatory life sentence. " How in the world could you have done it?"

Simon asked. " I used to be a rod carrier," the convict answered,

"on the World Trade Center building-eighty floors up, getting eighteen

dollars an hour. One misstep and I was dead. With hash I could make $300,000 a

week. One misstep and I was in prison. Better odds." (Simon 75) The

immediate payoff of crime is so great that many are willing to risk prison. The

certainty of restitution, by requiring payment, takes the profit out of crime.

The assets of organized crime members and big time narcotics dealers, for

example, could be seized at arrest and confiscated on conviction, with the

offender ordered to make further restitution through work programs. That is real

punishment. Many Americans believe in our current prison system, and also

believe that it is an effective form of punishment for the criminal. Some would

say that criminals can live decent, civilized lives in prison and graduate to

decent, civilized lives in the free world. My question to these people is; how

can criminals live civilized lives in an environment that only offers chaos and

mild forms of anarchy? It is well known what goes on behind closed doors in

prison; terrible atrocities that make the blood boil and the stomach curdle are

the only thing these prisoners are accustomed to while they are in prison. Most

inmates learn little of value during their confinement behind bars, mostly

because they adapt to prison in immature and often self-defeating ways. As a

result, they leave prison no better-and sometimes considerably worse-than when

they went in. The first time offender who is arrested for burglary does not

belong in a prison where the only thing he will learn is how to become a better

and more violent burglar. Instead, why not make him pay restitution to the store

owner whom he robbed? In my opinion, if this form of punishment was initiated

for the lesser offender, our prisons will have the vacancies to incarcerate the

Jeffery Dahmers of the world in prison for life, instead of the infamous

"ten to twenty, out in five". Crime is the result of morally

responsible people making wrong moral decisions, for which they must be held

accountable. The just and necessary response to such behavior is punishment,

which may include restitution for community service, stiff fines, or , in cases

where the offender is dangerous, prison. But let’s not kid ourselves any longer.

The prison was not designed to cure the individual; it was made to lock him up.


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