When Prison Causes More Harm Than Good

05/26/2015 04:31 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

In 2013, the popular PBS staple Sesame Street proffered support for many young children with a parent in prison by introducing a character named Alex, whose father is an incarcerated convict. In a country where it is estimated that 2.7 million children have a parent in prison in the United States, the show was highly commended for talking about an increasingly relatable topic in our society instead of turning it into taboo. Nevertheless, the fact that subjecting our own citizens to overly-debilitating conditions in prison has become so commonplace in our society is both problematic and unjust. Soon after the outset of the "Get Tough" movement of the 1970s, policy makers and politicians conjured more punitive punishments towards law breakers, and ultimately, social institutions like prison, once thought to be societies for rehabilitation, became places where their ultimate goal was clear and simple: punishment. Since then, California alone has built 22 new prisons while state funding for other things, like public education, has drastically diminished. Thus, the current approach to prison policy itself is completely irrational, as it subjects prisoners to harsh conditions often times caused by overcrowding, and ultimately fails to rehabilitate prisoners and prevent recidivism.

Today we know that an accumulation of negative threats can influence people to engage in criminal activity which otherwise would not have occurred. Yet, the common notion that perpetrators of crime are inherently evil blatantly ignores the structurally-embedded risk factors associated with criminality, such as poverty and neighborhood disadvantage. This trend effectively began back in the 1970s; as support for the Tough on Crime movement remarkably multiplied, so too did the number of those sentenced to prison and eventually, the uncontrollable influx created heavy overcrowding in prisons. Unconstitutional ways of accommodating the growing prison population made already harsh conditions even harsher; placing two to three prisoners in a minuscule cell, or turning prison gymnasiums into dormitories where no less than a hundred prisoners would be housed in a single room, became standard procedure. These overcrowded conditions, seemingly innocuous to policy makers, contributed additional negative consequences to an already unforgiving setting, where prisoners are forced to conform to the "Iron Law of Corrections" ideal to avoid further punishment from guards, and where attitudes and behaviors between inmates themselves often times lead to adverse and even lethal consequences.

Thus, it should not be surprising that for the majority of prisoners, such conditions lead to dysfunctional consequences upon their release into the free world. For instance, correctional officers must establish a series of rules and regulations in order to maintain control over inmates. Part of these rules can range from somewhat commonsensical to outright arbitrary and strange; yet, they are fully enforced by prison guards, and if violated, are met with exacting punishment. A normal adaptation to this phenomenon is to acclimate to this forced structure, which is functional while in prison, but highly dysfunctional upon the prisoner's release, which often times results in an inability to make simple decisions in a free world where independence is highly valued. Moreover, in such circumstances where fellow inmates either constantly intimidate others or are the recipients of such intimidation, hypervigilance and distrust of others are normal in the prison setting. However, this can affect an ex-convict's ability to re-establish meaningful and long-lasting relationships with their former friends, spouses, and own children.

Furthermore, because overcrowding contributes to a highly perilous prison environment where inmates are constantly forced to co-exist, some in prison may join gangs for protection; however, being part of a gang can actually tarnish an inmate's prison record, and ultimately make gang-affiliated inmates' sentences longer. Thus, finding protection in prison can often serve as a Catch-22, where one needs to survive prison in order to be released, but doing so as part of a gang makes one's chances of leaving this horrifying environment much harder.

Additionally, because of the deprived conditions many prisoners are exposed to, and the crammed environments in which they live, sexual assault is not an uncommon occurrence in penitentiaries. The degrading conditions of life in prison make it so some prisoners, who have learned to adopt aggressive adaptations for survival, tragically exert their power over other prisoners in the form of rape. Sexual aggression has been known to have injurious effects on both aggressors and victims. For aggressors, such acts can lead to a subsequent inability to preserve meaningful relationships outside of prison. For those targeted, the distress caused by the act can lead to chronic psychiatric consequences such as non- diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder, because its effects are so chronic they essentially surpass those symptoms normally listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for the malady.

Ultimately, the far-reaching consequences of overcrowding in prison continue to exist long after inmates' long and brutal sentences end. Practices like parole, initially intended as a practice to better suit individuals and effectively support re-entry into society, backfired like many other practices in the prison system, and instead became a way for the criminal justice system to keep close contact with ex-inmates who, if caught violating the law, are quickly returned to the very setting which caused them much psychological harm in the first place. Thus it is unfortunately unsurprising that many ex-convicts have more success re-entering prison rather than the free world.

And even so, while the U.S. prison system should exert some amount of punishment, our prisons irrationally exert it on prisoners to the point where it counterproductively causes more harm than good. Reforming our current prison system will help create positive re-entry experiences for prisoners, their families, and society at large. Not doing so will compromise our ability to be a fair and just nation, and will continue in our needing to educate young children that it is normal to retain our own citizens in devastating conditions for months or even years on end, trapping them in cages, sometimes even more than once in their lifetimes.