Today’s topic is quite multi-layered, and there is no single answer. This question is also full of assumptions and leads to more questions. Do only bad people go to jail? Does our society give crime the punishment it deserves? Should we put nonviolent criminals in jail first?
I will answer this question from a personal point of view. I will also try to include the stories of other ex-prisoners. First, it is necessary to understand my background. I am a 42 year old Caucasian female serving two 15 year sentences for possession and cultivation of marijuana.
I’ve never been in trouble in my life before being arrested and sentenced. I had two speeding tickets as a kid. They’re all in favor of running 45 miles out of 30 because there’s a speed trap outside the apartment complex where I live.
I grew up in a middle-class family and graduated top of my class in high school with a BA in journalism from the University of Kansas. After earning my degree, I worked in television and radio for many years before moving on to a sales job at a Fortune 500 company.
I regularly earn a good income, pay my taxes, have great friends, and are part of an amazing family. Honestly, when I was in prison, I didn’t believe I belonged there, I never considered myself a bad person or a threat to society.
Of course, no one is perfect and everyone has areas in life where they can improve. However, I never had the mindset that prison would make me a better person. It’s just savage punishment for “crimes” that don’t constitute crimes in other states.
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
- Are all prisoners in prison bad?
- Why is the recidivism rate so high?
- Do most criminals get better when they get out of prison?
Are all prisoners in prison bad?
When I was sentenced to prison, I remember being terrified of the people I lived with. The only “knowledge” I had of prisons was what I saw on tv and movies, so I went in thinking everyone was a member of a violent gang and if you got it wrong they’d cut you.
I didn’t think much about the criminal justice system or the prison system until I was incarcerated, and I’m ashamed to say that I almost believed that people who are in prison should be there.
When I went to prison, I found that most of the guards had the same belief, because many of them often said to the prisoners, “If you don’t like the rules, it’s not my fault. You shouldn’t be in prison.”
In the four years I’ve been behind bars, I’ve come to realize that not only is our society imprisoning too many people, but we’re imprisoning some pretty remarkable people. Most people in prison are just regular people who made bad impulsive choices, were in relationships with the wrong group of friends or the wrong romantic partners, were victims of abuse, had mental health issues, and/or Have an addiction problem.
It strikes me that there are very few people in prison who are actually horrible people who are a real threat to society. It may sound surprising, but even people who commit murder mostly do so because they feel threatened in some way, and they think it’s their only option.
Should violent offenders be punished? certainly. But, I just want to make it clear that prisons aren’t full of violent, vicious serial killers and rapists who used to roam the streets looking to hurt people before they were caught.
Don’t get me wrong. There are people in the world who deserve to be locked up and socially isolated, but it’s not as common as you might think.
Why is the recidivism rate so high?
I’m sure a lot of people will ask, “Why is there such a high rate of recidivism when there are so many good people in prison?” It’s a good question, and it’s definitely something we need to discuss as a society.
I’m not going to dive into this complex topic, but we do have a post on Prison Insight about recidivism That’s a must read. If you’re not familiar with the term, the recidivism rate is the rate at which former prisoners return to prison. In other words, it is the rate at which prisoners are re-arrested for re-offending after being released from prison.
According to a study by the Bureau of Justice, 43.1 percent of ex-inmates are re-arrested within their first year out of prison. To make matters worse, 83.4 percent of ex-convicts were re-arrested within nine years of their release.
The numbers prove that people aren’t better off after they get out of prison, right? actually not. Many people go out wanting to improve their lives and don’t want to go back, but our society fails them utterly.
Most inmates leave prison with about $20 and a box of prison belongings in their pockets. If they don’t have a support system of friends and family who can help them, they don’t have many housing options other than a halfway house or shelter.
When you’re a felon, finding work can be quite a challenge, let alone finding a landlord who will rent to you. Without the proper support system in place and people willing to work with you on employment and housing, many prisoners are forced back into a life of crime in order to survive.
A good example is the Netflix show orange is the new blackYou may recall that when Piper got out of prison, her father helped her find a job while her brother provided her with a place to live. This allowed her to plan her life after prison and succeed without looking back.
On the other hand, when Taystee was released, she had nowhere to go but to go to her cousin’s house and sleep on the floor. To make ends meet, she had to get back into drug dealing, which landed her back in prison within just a few weeks of her release.
Do most criminals get better when they get out of prison?
The simple answer to this question is yes. Most do get better off because they can get a GED or learn vocational skills to help them get a job, and the vast majority don’t want to go back after they’re released.
However, long-term incarceration can be extremely damaging to a prisoner’s mental health.
In the U.S government report Social psychologist Craig Haney, who collaborated with Philip Zimbardo on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, was blunt about the psychological effects of incarceration: “Very few people are completely unchanged or unaffected by this Injury experienced.”
After many years in prison, people are not the same after they get out, and many say it “fundamentally changes people”. As the research points out, people are forced to adapt to prison in order to survive, but release doesn’t do them much good.
“Key features of a prison environment that can lead to personality change include chronic loss of free choice, lack of privacy, daily stigma, constant fear, the need to frequently wear a mask of invulnerability and emotional flatness (to avoid being exploited by others), and day-to-day Requirements to abide by strict rules and practices imposed externally,” writes BBC Future’s Christian Jarrett.
Yes, prison changes you in many ways. Losing freedom causes most people to want to get betterㅡif they need to change. However, I think most people who go to jail shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Should we put nonviolent criminals in jail? Let us know in the comments below.