Letter: Punishment Without Rehabilitation
To the Editor:
There are more penal theories bandied about than one can shake a stick at, but Crystal Moses expresses views in her Dec. 22 letter (“Prison Isn’t Supposed to Be Pleasant”) that might make a Taliban smile. Flogging, beheading, hand severing and stoning would all answer Moses’ call for a prison system that is “more streamlined, more unpleasant, less accommodating and less costly.”
Jesting aside, Moses has much too rosy a view of prisoner comforts and a weak grasp of the social purpose of incarceration. Worried as she is about prisoners getting better health care than she, I hope she welcomes the Affordable Care Act as at least a palliative. Between 1973 and 2009, the nation’s prison population grew by 705 percent, resulting in more than one in 100 adults behind bars. In comparison, the median rate among all other nations is one-sixth of America’s. Moses might approve of the productivity rate in the manufacture of prisoners (good heavens, anything, it seems, can be a product for profit these days), but does she really think Americans have become 705 percent more criminal? She might also like the fact that prison costs have risen by a paltry 305 percent — to $52 billion — in the past two decades. Is this what she believes private for-profit prisons have achieved?
Maybe the prisoners are being fed less well, after all. Maybe private for-profit prisons are more cost effective, but there’s no evidence for that. It’s likely that overcrowding is the issue. Meanwhile the average overall U.S. recidivism rate remains high, including in California where prisons are probably at their most “streamlined, unpleasant and unaccommodating” and, indeed, unconstitutional, according to that state’s Supreme Court. High recidivism means wasted money.
I suggest Moses look at the more humane (and fiscally less onerous) European policies, particularly in Norway where recidivism is low — 20 percent — and where, legend has it, inmates, barely punished, are housed with every creature comfort. By contrast, our prison system destroys people, families and communities, and undermines the economy. It divides us by race and class. It does nothing to rehabilitate. Yes, we should, as Alex Friedman suggested in his Dec. 14 letter, focus on prisoners, not profits.