America loves its laws but adores its outlaws. Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, they burn up the screen from Alcatraz to Oz. We're particularly fond of jailbirds. Those silent lambs. Those women behind bars. All that bottled rage. All that toughness, that loneliness, that yearning to breathe free! We've been so in love with them, so besotted for so long, that all we could think about for years was how to change them.
But we learned, as anyone in love soon does: You can't change your beloved. You can love them and they can love you, but they're going to change only when and if they really want things to be different.
Okay. We know that now. And we accept it. Sort of. But we can't help wondering: Isn't there some way some trick to make those bad, wicked convicts want to change!
Liberals hoped that a few sessions of therapy and vocational training would do it: wrong. Punishment hawks think they've got it now: Make it so damned rough for them in there they'll prefer being dull and obedient (like us) to being sexy and defiant (like themselves).
Expressed as policy these sentiments have changed the terminal end of the criminal justice system from a policy of corrections to one of containment and punishment. Our prisons are harsher, sentences are longer, programs that help prisoners build new lives are fewer. "Warehousing" would be a more accurate term than "corrections," or, in some institutions, "torture."(1) Programs proven to reduce recidivism like drug and alcohol rehab have been tossed out with perks like weight rooms and cable T.V.
Even the mainstream media has begun to worry that our prison system is becoming scarier than the criminals, and there's reason to suspect that they're right.
The most frightening development has been the advent and increase of private prisons, now the fastest-growing segment of the correctional system. Private prisons are scary because, having been adopted in a free-market, anti-government spirit, they are under-regulated. Fox Butterfield of The New York Times, whose crime reporting has been one of the bright spots of the New Correctional Era, describes conditions in a juvenile prison in Louisiana that could justify a military invasion if they occurred in another country or Waco, Texas.(2)
Private prisons make their profits by cutting costs, which is often done at the expense of safety for prisoners, guards and the public.(3) Increasingly, they also profit by contracting out prison labor to private companies.
Our constitution explicitly permits convict slavery,(4) but that doesn't mean we should run with it, particularly since we so enjoy raking China over the coals for comparable practices. When U.S. prisoners labor at substandard wages for private companies, and those companies are allowed to sell their goods in the open market, as they are now doing, union wage earners will be made to pay literally for others' crimes. So unions can be forgiven if they yell: "We was robbed!"
Worse, privatized, for-profit prison labor creates a lobby of employers dependent on maintaining a supply of convict labor a well-heeled lobby with a financial stake in social degeneracy! Whoever believes that private prisons will save us money must be heeding the voice of that little dog who keeps whispering to psychos: "Kill them all!"
It makes sense for prisoners to work (as many now do) to repay their victims, to support their families and to recompense the state for the cost of keeping them, provided that they work at jobs that society needs done but can't seem to finance like rebuilding schools,(5) or producing school textbooks, furniture and equipment. That way they would repay their debt to all, rather than to a few at the expense of the innocent.
Longer first and second terms for violent crimes should deter wannabe felons enough without adding economic exploitation or dehumanizing treatment(6) to the mix. But, to reassure those who fear that a humane prison is an attractive alternative to life on the streets, we could let anyone who wanted the steady work, the health care and the glamorous, B-movie company simply pay to go to jail without committing a crime.
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