The Problem Of American Prisons

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Robert A. Ferguson’s new book Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment explores the unusual cruelty and vengefulness in our criminal justice system. Andrew Cohen praises the book for positing “that America needs a fundamentally revised understanding of the concept of punishment itself if it is to save its soul”:

As a matter of law and politics, Ferguson asserts, the concept of retribution clearly has won in America. But what a terrible price to pay for such victory. With a few notable recent exceptions– including New York’s brave new foray into education as a defense against recidivism— we are a nation that seeks to punish, not rehabilitate, our prisoners. In this respect we have gone back in time, back to a dark age in our penological past, back to where in the 21st Century we justify locking away a mentally ill teenager in solitary for 17 years.

Joseph Stromberg looks at the damage wrought by solitary confinement:

A majority of those surveyed [by psychologist Craig Haney] experienced symptoms such as dizziness, heart palpitations, chronic depression, while 41 percent reported hallucinations, and 27 percent had suicidal thoughts—all levels significantly higher than those of the overall prison populations. An unrelated study published last week found that isolated inmates are seven times more likely to hurt or kill themselves than inmates at large. These effects, Haney says, don’t only show how isolation harms inmates—they tell us that it achieves the opposite of the supposed goal of rehabilitating them for re-entry into society.

Helen Vera adds:

Solitary increases the likelihood that a former prisoner, after release, will wind up back in prison. It is extremely expensive, costing as much as two or three times more to hold a prisoner in solitary confinement than in even a traditional maximum-security setting. And it exposes corrections systems to time-consuming and burdensome lawsuits. The commonplace reliance on solitary for prison discipline is a failed experiment, and it’s time for it to end.

Last week there was a glimmer of good news: the NY Department of Corrections decided it will no longer use solitary as a punishment for prisoners younger than 18. Meanwhile, Matt Stroud covers the failures of the private prison industry:

Alex Friedmann, who spent six years as a prisoner in a CCA facility in Clifton, Tennessee, now runs the prisoner rights magazine Prison Legal News. He advocates against private prison companies (and holds stock in CCA so he can speak up at its shareholder meetings). …

Public officials support private prisons because they often need the bed space, regardless if those beds are tied to companies that are “abusive, lead to higher recidivism rates and cost more,” Friedmann says. Second, he continues, public officials are often “ideologically wedded to the concept of privatization in spite of the industry’s abysmal track record,” and third, public officials “receive direct benefits from private prison companies, such as campaign contributions, consulting contracts or the promise of future employment by such firms.”

(Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)