Are American prison systems a result of a failed public policy? Why continue with our public policy of incarceration when it appears to not be working? What other punishments could be used...

Are American prison systems a result of a failed public policy?

  1. Why continue with our public policy of incarceration when it appears to not be working?
  2. What other punishments could be used instead of incarceration?
Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I am not sure that there can be a simple answer to this question.  It takes on so many different forms and encompasses so much that I think that the space offered here is not enough to "answer' it.  I preface all of this with the final disclaimer that no one can claim to be the source of a totalizing answer here. The public policy of incarceration is a testament to the amount of pain and suffering that exists in our world.  Anyone who claims to have a definitive answer which alleviates these conditions might not be fully genuine.

I think that one reason why we continue our public policy of incarceration when it appears to not be working is to satisfy the punitive streak that exists in the public mindset regarding criminal activity.  Part of this is residual from "Get tough on crime" initiatives, substantiated by "Three Strikes" approaches, as well as the basic idea that we, as a society, are "too soft" on those who commit crimes.  Incarceration is an answer that satisfies these persistent elements that seem to linger and clamor within the public consciousness. Elected leaders have found that being able to enact more punitive measures helps to generate votes, and prevents one from negative advertising from opponents that labels one as "soft on crime.:"

Until the mid-1970s, rehabilitation was a key part of U.S. prison policy. Prisoners were encouraged to develop occupational skills and to resolve psychological problems--such as substance abuse or aggression--that might interfere with their reintegration into society. Indeed, many inmates received court sentences that mandated treatment for such problems.

Since then, however, rehabilitation has taken a back seat to a "get tough on crime" approach that sees punishment as prison's main function, says Haney. The approach has created explosive growth in the prison population, while having at most a modest effect on crime rates.

In this climate, rehabilitation is not seen as desirable.  It is a complex approach, one that requires explanation, delineation, and a sense of nuance.  In a setting where "tough on crime" mentalities have emerged as both an integral part of socially normative behavior as well as political expedience, incarceration is seen as one of the most dominant, if not the overriding, answer.  There does not seem to be an overwhelming desire to examine whether there is a correlative effect between prison incarceration and reduced crime rates, nor is there a desire to investigate restorative justice approaches.  The result is continued building of prisons and reliance on an incarceration system that might not be working.

Another potential reason why we seem to be continuing with our public policy of incarceration when it appears to not be working could be due to economic reality.  Building prisons is a big business.  With the demand of increased incarceration, prison building has become a growth industry.  The emergence of economic motives might be another factor that shapes policy.  In addition to the building of prisons that generates money, the private contracting out of prisoners for work as a source of labor helps to feed industrial growth. Many companies have privatized prison populations as a labor pool that can help to maximize profit:

The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself.

Prison labor helps to account for massive corporate profits:  "Just between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion."  While in many places, prisoners make minimum wage, that is not guaranteed and a lack of unions helps to further relegate the voice of the worker in this power dynamic.  This is a more sinister reason why the failed policy of incarceration is pursued.  It represents "good business."

I think that one approach that could be embraced instead of a penchant for incarceration is treatment.  A good chunk of the prison population experiences some type of mental illness:  "Today, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of people in prison are mentally ill, according to U.S. Department of Justice estimates."  In being able to treat mental illness, those who are incarcerated might get the treatment they need to be able to avoid coming back upon their release.  Evidence suggests that treating individuals who have mental illness is more cost effective than incarceration: "It's cheaper to provide outpatient services than to pay for their confinement in a prison... But more importantly, these are human beings who are worthy of receiving appropriate interventions and treatment."  Seeking treatment for those who are sick is a critical step in seeking an alternative of incarceration.  It will require a conscious will to repel the punitive streak that is embedded in the current system of incarceration.