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A Possible Alternative to America’s Flawed Prison System

 

With an average incarceration rate of 693 per every 100,000 people and 1821 state and federal prisons, America is no stranger to crime. The problem? Most of these offenders aren’t being rehabilitated.

As of today, America has a staggering prison population of about 2.2 million. That’s the highest in the world, leaving second place China far behind at about 1.5 million. Now the fact that we have this many prisoners is another issue entirely. But one of the main problems with our prisons is that they aren’t reaching one of their main goals: rehabilitation.

America currently has a reoffending rate of 77% within five years of release. That’s huge. That means that if we were to release 100,000 prisoners at the same time, 77,000 of them would be back behind bars within five years. And these prisoners don’t get a free stay. In fact, America’s prisons cost about $80 billion annually. If people wouldn’t keep going back to prison, that number would be much lower.

One of the reasons that America’s prisons tend not to work is because of the way prisoners are treated. When one goes to prison in America, they tend to be treated like a criminal, like a statistic, rather than a person, from the minute they walk in.

In American prisons, when one first walks in, they tend to be greeted with a full body check. A check that shows that the guards are in full control of their lives during their stay. Then, they’re given orange jumpsuits, the same as everyone else’s, and introduced to their cell, where they will spend most of their time. Not out and about in the prison, but in a small cell, probably one they’ll have to share with someone else.

Our prison system is one that treats criminals like criminals; it aims to punish them. And if you keep treating criminals like criminals, there’s a good chance they’re going to stay that way. It’s also set up in a way that the system itself is often against the prisoners, not working to help them. The guards, for example, often tend to be there solely as enforcers, making sure everyone stays in line. This, however, doesn’t do much to change the inmates’ criminal mindsets.

The solution to America’s re-incarceration problem seems to be to treat prisoners like people, not as criminals. And this alternate path is perfectly exemplified by Norway’s Halden Maximum Security Prison, considered to be one of the most humane in the world.

Halden, just like any prison, holds people who are a danger to society: murderers, burglars, drug traffickers, etc. However, its goal isn’t to punish these people, but to turn their lives around, so they can one day be functioning members of society.

When one walks into Halden, they’ll probably find it a strange sight. They’ll notice a lack of bars, and they’ll see prisoners walking around free for most of the day. When they look at the prisoners they’ll see not orange jumpsuits but normal street clothes. If they decide to take a look at a cell, they’ll find what instead looks more like a small hotel room for one person, each prisoner with their own shower and even a refrigerator.

But who may be shocked most is a new inmate, when they are welcomed into the prison not with a strip down search, but with a handshake from a guard.

At Halden, one will also not see a constant battle between prisoner and guard, criminal and authority. Instead, they’ll see guards working together with prisoners, perhaps helping them learn or just having a chat or even sharing a joke. They’ll see guards treating inmates as people, rather than criminals.

The point that many guards at Halden make is that people shouldn’t be punished while they’re in prison. Going to prison is already the punishment. Because no matter how nice one makes prison, you’re still being confined to a building that you can’t leave for months or years.

That’s months or years where you can’t see the outside world or spend time with your friends and family or enjoy life like one normally would. So by that logic, according to Halden staff, the focus shouldn’t be to further punish people during their punishment, but rather to use that time to rehabilitate them.

And Norway’s different approach to incarceration is certainly working, as seen through the country’s reoffending rate of just 20%, one of the lowest in the world. However, this low rate doesn’t come for free. In Halden, costs are a huge – $120,000 per prisoner per year.

Despite its massive financial price, Halden is still a perfect example of how our prison system could change. Halden shows that if prisoners are put in an environment where they’re treated like people, rather than criminals, where the system works with them, not against them, their criminal mindset with almost inevitably be challenged. Inmates will then have a higher chance of being rehabilitated instead of just being punished.

Changing America’s prison system will come at a costly price, but also with a lower reincarceration rate, which means less total prisoners. And less total prisoners will perhaps make the cost less burdensome in the long run, and should also lead to more nationwide public safety. So at the end of the day, America must decide if the pain will be worth the gain.

 

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