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Prison system unjust, unworkable


One feature of American life so painful that we regularly forget it is the condition of the nation’s prisons.

We were reminded of all the horrors of prison life by a report in early 2000, which reveals that New York state has finally granted damages of $8 million to the survivors of the 42 persons who were killed, the 80 who were injured and the other 1,281 inmates in Attica in 1971.

The nation wanted to believe that after the worst prison insurrection in U.S. history that things would get better. Another recent report confirmed, however, that things have not improved. The number of persons in prison in the United States now exceeds 2 million, and the isolation and degradation in which they live is staggering.

This issue has a personal dimension for me. In my seminary days, I taught religion to juvenile delinquents and adult prisoners in Massachusetts. In my 10 years in the Congress, I served on a subcommittee with oversight of federal prisons. I visited scores of jails and held hearings on problems of these institutions. During that time, the concept was born in the Congress that reform and parole were obsolete ideas and should be dropped. The idea of the rights of victims began to grow and dominate the world of corrections. The notion of exacting retribution, even vengeance on prisoners, began to be the mood of lawmakers who saw political gain by being tough on crime.

But even the savagery of Attica and the war on criminals during the last two decades do not explain the astounding recent rise in the number of prisoners. Inmates totaled 500,000 in 1978; the number has quadrupled to 2 million since that time. Most are nonviolent offenders, meaning inmates imprisoned for offenses that involve neither harm nor threat of harm to a victim. Obviously, most of the offenses were the possession or use, not the sale, of narcotics. Seventy-seven percent of the growth in the number of inmates from 1978 to the present time stems from such nonviolent offenses.

Data from the Department of Justice indicates that 73.7 percent of inmates in jails, and 87.7 percent of federal prisoners, were charged with nonviolent offenses.

The sheer numbers are staggeringly out of proportion with any other nation. Europe, with a population of 370 million, has roughly 300,000 prisoners. The Indian nation, with a population roughly four times that of the United States, has a prison population of some 500,000.

Even New York, despite the scars of Attica, has increased its prison population from 12,500 in 1971 to some 72,000 in 1999.

The racial composition of the prison population almost certainly reveals bias. Blacks are imprisoned eight times the rate of whites, and Hispanics are also more likely than whites to end up behind bars.

Women prisoners have doubled from 3 percent in 1978 to 6.3 percent of the prison population in 1997. While 27.6 percent of male jailed inmates are violent offenders, only 14.9 percent of female inmates are in that category.

Politicians like to pontificate that the day of “big government” is over, but they apparently think that big government can solve the problems of 2 million deprived and maladjusted human beings. In 1978, the prison budget was $5 billion; in 1997, that figure had escalated to $31 billion. And the prison budgets go up and up. From 1987 to 1995, state expenditures for prisons increased by 30 percent, while expenditures for universities decreased by 19 percent.

If any politician asserts that the recent decline in crime is attributable to the massive lock-up, he is speaking recklessly. The slight decrease in crime is due to a wide variety of reasons -- one of which is the availability of more jobs for unskilled persons in the crime-prone age category. Statistics on states that incarcerate more persons can’t prove what the advocates of more prisons want to demonstrate. Furthermore, even if some crimes were prevented, what has been done to the soul and lives of 2 million Americans?

Prison life does not correct, reform or educate. Prison is obviously necessary for some few persons who are irresistibly violent. But somehow the United States has put on blinders and, contrary to the overwhelming advice of students of the penal system, continues to warehouse people with little or no respect for their inherent human dignity.

Sometimes in our own lives we receive an illumination -- perhaps it is a grace from the Holy Spirit -- about some mistakes or sins we have committed. Similarly, nations are sometimes inspired to change their ways of thinking. The United States has had that spiritual experience with respect to its treatment of African-Americans. Perhaps America will see that there is something unfair, unjust and unworkable in the way it treats its 2 million prisoners.

Christ and the Christian churches have always had tender compassion for those deprived of their liberty. Christ is asking us to meet him in prison. He is residing in a special way in each of those 2 million inmates.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000