Thinking outside the Prison Box

Today’s reality TV offers us graphic glimpses into prison life.  Tension, violence, and suffering abound.  Recidivism is high.  It is hard to imagine that the purpose of the prison system is to motivate and rehabilitate offenders, so that they will become productive members of society who contribute to our resource base instead of draining it.  There are not a lot of poster boys and girls who claim that they found new meaning and purpose in prison.

To many people, justice and punishment are synonymous.  People should get what they deserve.  There is some satisfaction in that thought.  However, if punishment encourages citizens to be more destructive, it is not in the interest of society.

In a perfect society, the justice system would be focused on setting things right.  Offenders would be confronted by the fact that their behavior is unacceptable and will have inconvenient and unpleasant consequences.  They would be helped to realize that their actions are destructive to themselves and others, encouraged to take responsibility for their choices, and taught skills and strategies for a more positive lifestyle.  They would be held accountable for their actions, and stay in the correctional system until they have made appropriate amends to those they have hurt.

Sentencing options which allow offenders to continue to support themselves and their families financially are clearly to the advantage of society, and foster both accountability and self-esteem.  House arrest, work release, and day fines based on income send a sharp message to the offenders without completely disrupting their lives and that of their families.

Mediation is a challenging option which can bear good fruit.  The offender meets with the victim under supervision and works out a solution which is submitted to the legal authorities for ratification.  This allows the individuals involved to confront each other, connect, and discover their common humanity.  If the offender comes to realize the full implications of harming others, s/he may not want to repeat the negative choices.

Compulsory education or treatment programs may be useful, provided that they do not interfere with the process of those who are there voluntarily.  Boot camps for juvenile offenders seem like an attractive option to those of us who would like to see errant youth experience military discipline, but appropriate boundaries must be maintained.  All programs must be carefully monitored to ensure that they produce the desired results, so that ineffective programs can be scrapped and replaced by ones that work.

My personal favorite is community service.  A fine is assessed and worked off at an hourly wage.  This levels the economic playing field.  A millionaire would have to do the same work for the same offense as an unemployed homeless person.  This system gives offenders the opportunity to give something back to society.  In order to use this tool effectively, it is necessary to organize workplaces with adequate supervision to ensure quality control.  Positions in existing workplaces such as schools, playgrounds, hospitals and nursing homes should be reserved for those who have the appropriate skills and have demonstrated their willingness to do the best job possible.  Even these elite offenders would not be totally exempt from the experience of collecting garbage or performing other menial tasks.

When we are angry with those who have transgressed the law, it is difficult to agree to options that tend to improve their lot in life by teaching new skills and raising self-esteem.  Nonetheless, we must recognize that punishement for the sake of punishment often makes things worse.   Rehabilitation serves society, and prevents the creation of additional victims. 

For comprehensive information, including effectiveness of the various programs, surf to: