Serving Justice

The U.S. prison system must be reformed in order to allow criminals to be rehabilitated 19 for, 1 against, 2 abstained

     Something is seriously wrong with the way criminals are dealt with in the United States.

     Here, we treat criminals like animals – we throw them in steel cages for years and then toss them back into society without the tools needed to survive, without the tools they lacked when they were put in prison.

     Put simply, what we’re doing isn’t working.

     Prison should be a way to rehabilitate criminals after they commit crimes, and it should also provide encouragement to avoid committing those same crimes upon reentering society. However, 80 percent of previously incarcerated criminals end up being arrested again.

     That isn’t the only statistic that is startling. Of every 220 American citizens, one is incarcerated. That means 1.5 million people are in being held in American penal facilities. And, although there has been an overall decline in crime rates in the country since the 1970s, the number of inmates has increased by more than 390 percent since 1978.

     Instead of sentencing this immense number of people to a cold prison cell that lacks love and connection, we should be helping them out of their destructive habits. Some prisons have programs that give inmates therapy, education and other useful skills for personal development, but programs such as these are few and far between.

     One example of a highly effective program is the Safe Harbor prison dogs program at Lansing Correctional Facility, founded by Toby Dorr. The program, which she started in 2006, not only rescues dogs in need of a home but also helps inmates cope with the mental and emotional devastation of being in prison for a long period of time without significant human interaction.

     “A lot of my dog handlers didn’t have visits, so they were just totally isolated, and suddenly they had a dog who they could hug and tell their stories to and confide in,” Dorr said. “The atmosphere in the prison was not tense like it had been before. You would hear people laughing out in the yard because they were playing with a dog or petting a dog, and it just really changed the demeanor of the inmates. ”

     Dorr’s latest program is aimed at educating incarcerated women how to improve their lives through a strengthened mindset.

     “The workbook guides women through different personality characteristics like courage, perseverance and faith,” Dorr said. “It has exercises to help them begin to implement those characteristics in their lives so that when they get out of prison they can start on a path of healing and wholeness.”

     Programs like Dorr’s allow prisoners to find comfort and humanity but are not nearly common enough in today’s prisons. In fact, some prisons in the United States don’t even offer programs for inmates at all — which is something to be embarrassed about.

     “There aren’t nearly enough programs in prisons,” Dorr said. “There should be book clubs in prisons and so many different things. We just overlook inmates because they’re out of sight, out of mind. Nobody is concerned about their well-being. If we were more intentional in trying to make prisons truly a place of rehabilitation instead of punishment, I think we would be a better society.”

     Some states have better programs for inmates as well as different and more lucrative sources of funding. However, instead of focusing on rehabilitation programs to help inmates improve themselves, for-profit prisons exist only to make money. When the people in charge receive a piece of the funding that should be used for good, the opportunities for additional problems increase.

     “The people in charge of with the money and power are incentivized to continue having people imprisoned for low-level offenses for long periods of time because the state takes taxpayer money and pays them,” U.S. History teacher Rebecca Anthony said.

     The rate of recidivism (rearresting of criminals previously incarcerated) is high because of the misuse of money, and the fact that putting criminals back in jail is not thought about twice.

We need to change the way we conduct the criminal justice system since its current mode of operation is completely ineffective. Although the amount of rehabilitation currently taking place in prisons is dismal, we can change it through the addition of programs such as Dorr’s, which are relatively simple yet highly effective. To do this, however, we need lawmakers who are willing to reform in our prisons.

     Stay informed about who will actually make change and help our country, instead of only listening to what you want to hear. And, if you are 18 or older, take advantage of your privilege as an American voter and be a part of the solution.