What is the summary of "Fixing America's Broken Prisons"?
"Fixing America's Broken Prisons" is an article in The Week focusing on the issue of the prison system in the USA. The author addresses the issues with the system point by point.
Asking, "What is the US prison population?" the author notes that the US has the highest prison population in the world, housing a quarter of all inmates globally, with tax payers spending over $80 billion annually on the prison system. Furthermore, 40% of all prisoners in the US are African-American, suggesting an underlying racial issue.
Next, the author addresses the idea of "the alternative," referring to some measures taken in Texas to fund drug-treatment alternatives and support early release for good behavior. These measures seem to have had some effect, lowering Texan prison populations by 3%.
"Why are so many people locked up?" The author then discusses the rise in prison population beginning in the 70s and 80s as drug crimes soared and law makers began to impose harsher sentences for these offenses. This section also addresses the "three strikes" rules which have seen many third-time offenders imprisoned even for minor offenses.
"Do prisons work?" This, the author notes, is debatable; there is no clear correlation between a falling crime rate and harsher sentencing or a growing prison population. In New York, prison populations are at a relatively low level, but so are homicide and robbery rates.
Asking "what are other states doing?" the author notes that the Texan idea of approaching punishment differently has also expanded to Kansas and Louisiana, as well as Hawaii. All these states are considering alternatives to long prison sentences, focusing on probation and rehabilitation. This section moves into the next, which asks whether these reforms "go far enough," and explains that many criminologists do not think they do. While addressing drug crimes is a beginning, drug criminals represent only 17% of all US inmates; the large majority of those imprisoned are burglars, rapists and other violent offenders. UCLA has proposed a scheme to encourage the reintegration of these prisoners into society through a graduated process involving sheltered housing.
Next, the article turns to Norway, where the prison system focuses strongly on rehabilitation rather than punishment and encourages privacy and communal living among the inmates. In Norway, recidivism rates are only 20%, but NY state prison superintendent James Conway was unconvinced, when visiting a Norwegian prison, that the lax system would work in the USA.
This article is made up of seven paragraphs, each with its own title or heading. I will summarize each paragraph.
Paragraph 1 is entitled “What is the U.S. prison population?” In this paragraph, we are told that the prison population of the US is very high relative to that of other countries. We also learn that a disproportionate number of American prisoners are African American and that American prisoners tend to reoffend at very high rates after being released.
Paragraph 2 is entitled “What’s the alternative?” It tells us that Texas has been trying out programs that keep drug offenders and others out of prison if they are not really dangerous. This has reduced incarceration rates in Texas.
Paragraph 3 is entitled “Why are so many people locked up?” This paragraph says that there are so many prisoners in the US because of tough sentencing laws including “three strikes” laws that put people in prison for life.
Paragraph 4 is entitled “Do prisons work?” The answer is that it is not clear. Some states have rising rates of incarceration and dropping crime rates. Others see their crime rates declining even as their prison populations decline. Again, the majority of people released from prison end up going back, which is more evidence that prisons don’t rehabilitate people.
Paragraph 5 is entitled “What are other states doing?” It says that some states are trying programs to keep probation violators and drug users out of jail.
Paragraph 6 is entitled “Why not?” and it asks why the states’ efforts are not enough. The answer is because most of the people in prison are not there for drug offenses. If we are going to reduce prison populations appreciably, we will need to stop incarcerating so many people and for such long periods of time for other crimes. We would need to experiment with more things like electronic monitoring outside of prison and halfway houses to help convicts readjust to live in freedom.
Paragraph 7 is entitled “Norway's prison utopia.” It tells us that Norway has prisons that seem very lenient to Americans. They allow prisoners a lot of freedom and still have low recidivism rates. However, the article ends with an American prison official saying he does not think that would work in the US.