Prisons: Social Rehabilitation or Punishment
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 by Laramie Boyd
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         A panel of law enforcement and reform "experts" in California released a document which was sent to Democratic State Attorney general Kamala Harris, which stated that she should widen her role in attacking the roots of crime, and try to keep parolees from returning to prison, as she promised in her recent election campaign. The report says that California is paying more and getting less from the current system, as seven out of every 10 parolees return to prison within 3 years, and the state spends double the national average for prisoner costs and one-third more for the cost of supervising parolees. Harris responded by asking some 435 "experts" to examine how the state can resolve some of the problems of gangs, guns, truancy, mortgage fraud, victims' rights and civil rights, as many of the state's inmates have violated one or more of the statutes in these areas. Making the problem more complicated, among other issues, is a $27 billion deficit in the state, as reported by Governor Jerry Brown, and finding jobs and housing for parolees in these hard economic times is difficult also. Parolees are not favorite applicants for jobs or as home renters even when times are good.
         In answer to this situation, one republican District Attorney stated, "Those who are violent and dangerous need to be locked up for a long time. Those who we have a chance to turn around, we need to do that." This perspective illustrates what is a major, if not the most important, question raised by this social and economic dilemma. And that is, What is the role of a prison? Is it a place to punish someone convicted of a crime, and when the punishment is over, they are set free in hopes that the punishment would be such that the person would dread returning a second or third time for more of the same or even harsher treatment? Or is it a place where an attempt is made to rehabilitate that person, by any available psychological or sociological or other means, to the point where they make some mental adjustment and change their attitude towards society and live a life that will not lead them back to prison?
         Of course, wrapped around this clearly complicated issue are the views of the State Legislature, of the court that determines sentences, the views of the State Attorney General, the prison Wardens, the guards that watch over the inmates, and maybe even the riflemen who stand ready on the turrets. And maybe even more importantly in the long run, how does the public view the role of the prison system? Unless these bodies are in sync as to their role in carrying out an agreed upon purpose of a prison, the system could never be anything but a nightmare of confusion.
         It would be convenient if we could point to some verifiable statistics that indicated whether punishment or rehabilitation would result in the least number of parolees returning to prison within 3 years, or for that matter, ever. Recent studies on the subject have come up with some disappointing conclusions.
         The only sure ways of preventing parolees from returning to prison as a result of committing crimes again outside of prison are by keeping them locked up for life so they don't become parolees, or by sending them to the gas chamber. In those two scenarios, there are no repeat offenders. The advocates for prison as a place for punishment might favor, first of all, sentences that fit the crime, and no plea bargaining or probation for those found guilty, and a strict regimen while inside the prison. This could include small cells, subsistence meals, no TV or cell phones or computers or carpeted floors, and an early lights out policy. Also, if it is truly an environment that is a punishment for a serious crime, why would there be frequent contact with other prisoners, or sports programs, or opportunities to earn money while serving time, or lenient visitation rights? After all, the punishment advocates might suggest, this is not a Club Med vacation site, and the inmates have shown that they have no respect for law and order, or the rights of others, so why should we coddle them? Prison should be an unpleasant experience, they might say, one that someone would not willingly go out of their way to repeat. To find someone guilty of a serious crime and then tell them if they admit their guilt they will get a light sentence, or probation, or some other slap on the wrist, that is absurd on its face. The bottom line for prison as punishment might be, they committed a crime, now they must pay for it, period. The Rule of Law that this country is based on means that no one is above the law, and if you break it, you answer for it.
         Yet there is another approach. There are those who see prison as a half-way stop on the road to a better life for the inmate and a better chance that society will not be burdened again with the expense of parolees becoming repeat offenders. And the best way to do that, these people would say, is to offer various lenient options during the inmates' time served. They would advise the inmates be given counseling to determine their reasons for their criminal, often violent ways of life. They would advocate vocational training to prepare them for work when they are released, on the job training in carpentry, laundry, or agricultural related classes, even working in the fields. Rehabilitation could include classroom time for basic skills of learning like English and Math. Some "experts" in rehabilitation promote religious classes, where prayer is used to help the inmate to find some moral code they can identify with. Add to this assistance in job placement and you have a view of rehabilitation aimed at helping the individual prepare to adjust to life on the outside, in a way that might help in preventing them from returning to prison again. The bottom line of this approach could be, let's kindly help these human beings get a fresh start on a better life, if we can, for their own sake, and for the sake of society, in the best way we know how