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When it comes to prisons, we’ve got it backwards

Getting tough on crime has always been a powerful political haymaker -- some would say a cheap shot -- because it motivates voters by appealing to the basic human desire for safety. President Nixon, for example, played up the “law and order” theme to great effect.

With its inherent, if unspoken, implication that other candidates are soft on crime, the argument is perennially useful as a quick and easy-to-identify policy plank.

When elected officials get together in legislative assembly, one of the easiest ways to make good on such get-tough bravado is to push for harsher sentences for more people.

As Kathryn Casa’s report illustrates (see story), that kind of thinking has led to an explosion of inmates and prisons. Billed as a short-term fix, the long-range implications of the policy have received scant attention in the public arena.

But the outline of things to come is not really that difficult to discern. Stacking people away for years, hiding them from most of the rest of society in desperate and violent circumstances with little concern for rehabilitation or training can only unleash on the world increasingly desperate and violent people.

We are dealing with symptoms in a big way while stubbornly avoiding looking at the causes.

“What we’ve done is confuse accountability with incarceration,” says Nancy Mahon, director of the Center on Crime Communities and Culture in New York. “One of our concerns is that this heavy focus on incarceration as the way to address crime is incapacitating people without addressing the problem.”

In the past that line of reasoning might have been dismissed as just another unrealistic bleeding heart lament.

But the staggering dimensions of the prison issue have drawn the attention of such practical, hard-on-crime folks as noted conservative William F. Buckley, who has pleaded for increased treatment over increased jail time.

The indisputable reality is that the current approach to curbing crime, particularly the enormous resources devoted to the war on drugs, is costing a staggering amount and just doesn’t work.

To make matters worse, prisons have become, to many individuals and communities, an ugly proof that the U.S. justice system -- from choices about where to concentrate police power, to decisions made by prosecutors, to punishments handed down by judges whose hands are increasingly tied by mandatory sentencing laws -- is irredeemably racist. For most, it is not only racist, but unduly influenced by money.

Prisons as we know them -- as places intended for long-term punishment -- are a relatively recent development. Certainly there are few, if any, parallels in the modern world to the use of prisons in the United States.

The public will to punish, so easy to provoke, is now susceptible to a new element in the prison mix: the private, for-profit penal institution.

Any questions about the efficacy of current prison programs or debates over punishment versus rehabilitation are quickly swamped by this new phenomenon. How can one expect any sober consideration of prison issues -- of reform or initiatives to reduce the prison populations -- when the prison industry is driven by market forces?

What kind of culture quietly tolerates an industry whose growth and success depends on an ever-increasing supply of inmates?

We’ve got it all backwards. We are allowing our communities to invest our money in despair and human brokenness. We are feeding profiteers who need society to increase the categories and the sentences for which people can be incarcerated.

If, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes, the degree of civilization can be judged by entering a society’s prisons, then U.S. culture is devolving. If, as Christians, we believe that Jesus had prisoners in mind when he spoke of the least of these, then the culture has presented us with an enormous and growing challenge.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999