Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “as of December 31, 2004, there were 2,267,787 people behind bars in the United States.” This number is more than four times higher than in 1980. The U.S. incarceration rate now appears to be the highest in the world, even exceeding Russia and South Africa, and is several times higher than in most other industrialized countries.
Now, I would probably never be accused of having a bleeding heart. I think most of those people behind bars probably did something to deserve their punishment, and I wouldn’t advocate any wholesale releases. It seems likely that increased incarceration rates were an important factor in the recent decline in U.S. crime rates, which was a very, very positive development.
Nevertheless, I am disappointed at the almost total lack of public concern evident about this issue. It should be clear to us all that high incarceration rates represent a monumental failure of our society, and a terrible human tragedy. And it’s a tragedy that seems largely ignored and forgotten. If we shouldn’t simply release the prisoners, is there anything else we should we could do better as a society? What is our responsibility to those who find themselves in prison? I don’t know, but I have a few ideas.
1. Do more to see that prisoners’ rights aren’t grossly abused
Some accounts indicate that prison rape is remarkably common. What a terrible thing this is. Even if we’re too callous to empathize with the guilty prisoners, we could at least feel bad for the tens of thousand of innocents who surely must get swept into the system along with the guilty. Shamefully, prison rape is more often treated as a source of levity than as a source of concern. Other forms of violence and intimidation should be a concern as well, whether perpetrated by other prisoners, by guards, or by other prisoners with the approval of guards. It’s hard to know exactly how common these abuses are, but given that the brunt falls on the powerless, and given the general lack of public attention to these issues, it is easy for me to believe that they are all too common.
2. Provide opportunities for self improvement
Our first obligation to prisoners is to provide a physically secure environment, but beyond that we should provide opportunities for prisoners who want to better themselves. I’m not optimistic that we have the ability to “rehabilitate” most prisoners, but there are certainly a substantial minority who want to rehabilitate themselves, and we should be willing to spend the relatively small amount of resources that would be required to help them do so. I have some acquaintances that volunteer to teach basic mathematics to prisoners in California, and I admire their attempt to make a difference. Perhaps more of us could be involved in such activities.
3. Consider alternatives to incarceration
Much research indicates that spending resources on more police would be more cost effective in reducing crime than adding another year to the end of someone’s sentence. We could also put more and better resources into improving the probation and parole systems. Preventing a crime is obviously better than punishing one, both for the victim and for the perpetrator. Also, does it really make sense to lock up so many non-violent drug offenders for so many years? (Conservative crime expert John DiIulio makes some of these same points in this 1999 op-ed.)
4. Pay attention
For all the things our society does well, this is one area where we do abysmally. Nobody has all the answers, but I just feel that, somehow, more attention should be paid.
The sad truth is, the high rate of imprisonment is mostly a result of high rates of violent crime, and nobody has any easy solution for that. Recent lower crime rates give some reason for hope, but thus far imprisonment rates have continued to climb. If anyone out there has ideas how we can help make the best of this tragic situation, either individually or collectively, I’d like to hear them.