When I was growing up I learned that, although not perfect, the United States had the "best justice system in the world." I learned to appreciate the Bill of Rights, and the jury system that supposedly offered "fair and impartial" treatment. That bill of goods can not even be faintly passed off with a straight face to today's schoolchildren.
As the leading jailer in the world, latest figures from 2008 report that the United States had approximately 2.4 million men, women, and children locked up in jails, prisons, immigration detention facilities, military detention centers, and juvenile facilities. Prisons represent jobs for hundreds of industries including: road builders, construction workers, uniform makers, food distributors, law enforcement, parole officers, health care workers, and phone companies. The inmates work for between a few cents to just over a dollar an hour depending on if they are working to provide cheap labor to the prison itself, or working for an industry that relies on prison labor to keep manufacturing costs very low.
There is an ongoing sense of vengeance against wrong-doers in the U.S. Those that are in detention must have done something to deserve it, and many think that justifies any amount of suffering while locked away. What many do not see is that the purpose of any punishment should A) fit the crime, and B) be designed to create more functional members of society.
Perhaps the greatest crime of all is how we are predicating such a huge segment of our economy on a system that ruins lives, families, communities, and futures. "Correctional facilities" were meant to reform people, and allow them to serve their time for serious trespasses so that they can be able to reintegrate into society. Yet the system has morphed into an industry that is attempting to rationalize its own gargantuan existence by keeping as many people incarcerated as possible.
In a country with so much ingenuity, and in a world where there are many fine examples of how to keep prisoners from recidivating, two-thirds of all released U.S. prisoners are re-arrested within three years, and over half end up back in prison. It doesn't have to be this way, and we are perpetrating violations of human rights upon far too many of our children, our neighbors, our citizens.
After years of attacking social service and education costs such as day care, public schools, mental health services, drug treatment, student loans, and legislation such as affirmative action, the prisons are one of the expenditures to society that is tolerated. When you take away any path to achievement or reform, the opportunity to be a contributor to the economy through your own incarceration is what remains.
While the problems of mass incarceration are coming to a head, I believe it is important to be constructive about options for the future. There are many new employment opportunities that can be created that will strengthen and better unite society. I call this an "Industry of Peace." If we invest in providing education and training to those at risk of becoming or remaining criminals, the chance that they will recidivate goes down exponentially with each grade level completed. The more schooling you have, the less your chances are of committing crimes, and the greater chance you have to find a job. Hiring former prisoners who have turned their lives around, and getting them to work with those recently released creates an opportunity for change, professional development, respect for new norms and ways of making a living.
There are also practices and policies that promote and enhance peace, and reduce recidivism. Creating policies that require background checks to only be done through one agency that screens for any offenses directly linked to the job opening. For example, a person applying for a job as a bank teller would not have a vehicular manslaughter charge revealed, as it has nothing to do with the duties of a bank teller. Thus, this system theoretically allows for those who have served their time to reenter the mainstream, while the background checks will keep a person who embezzled money from an employer out of the same bank position.
I want to say clearly that I am not proposing that prisons or other detention facilities are obsolete, or that it is wrong for people to work in them. There are people that need to be isolated because they are a danger to the general public. And we need desperately for people to work with them. What I am proposing is that we become honest with ourselves as a society about the fact that mass incarceration, and many common practices within houses of detention are debilitating. We need to challenge ourselves to begin to help transform people's lives so that they can return in a functional way to live among us. As it is, 95% of those who become incarcerated will be released. Let's create the ways and means to do right by them. Because nothing good ever comes from denying people their own humanity.