Sunday, February 2, 2014

The US prison system is doing it wrong

I've been doing some reading about prison systems and sentences in Europe, more specifically The Netherlands and Germany. It helps us to identify an elephant that's been sitting in the middle of our room for years: What do we really hope to accomplish with our present system of incarceration?

If we're looking for retribution, if punishment is our goal, and if we're thinking that it's biblical to seek an eye for an eye, we're doing things exactly right. Prison in the U.S. is hell. There's little attempt at rehabilitation. Because they're “just prisoners,” we don't worry about quality or quantity of food. Meals very often are very terrible. Medical care in most prisons is marginal, as private healthcare services worry about the bottom line. Solitary confinement, though proven to be psychologically damaging, is rampant. Parole Boards often assume the role of sentencing judge and keep inmates behind bars far longer than early release dates. Punishment, you bet. And then we wonder why the recitivism rate is so high.

I started looking into the Dutch prison sentences after a native of the old country recently told me that the sentence there for first degree murder was 7 years, compared to life without parole here.

I was astounded at not only the difference in philosophy between these European countries and ours, but by the incredible difference in statistics. The ratio of incarcerated per 100,000 people is far lower than ours...far, far lower! And yet crime is not rampant in these countries.

I found that prisoners there are treated like human beings. Specially trained staff do their best to try to help these inmates to get their lives back together again. Prisoners are given private time. Many are allowed to prepare their own meals. There are programs in place to get them back on track, and for good reason. These people are going to re-enter society. The purpose of imprisonment is to separate these people from society, not to punish. The goal is to make them productive citizens.

One person was quoted as saying, “If we want these people to act like humans, we must treat them like humans.”

My first reaction was to claim that this is the Christian approach, because I do this work in the name of Jesus.

But regardless of what you believe, it's the humane approach.

And if statistics and track records are worth anything, they demonstrate that we're doing it all wrong.


Arun Venkatesh said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. Thanks for this wonderful post. I hope to see more posts in the future.
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Doug Tjapkes said...

How right you are! Since first meeting S., and other men through prison ministry meetings, I have become painfully aware of this country’s lack of appropriate care of prisoners. S. has been on dialysis for about eight years. In 2010 he had surgery for a burst aorta. To date, he uses a breathing machine, has irregular blood pressure, often high, and has a hernia that is growing and causing pain for which the prison will do nothing. Now he has an aortic aneurysm that is growing. He was told months ago that 5.5cm was a dangerous size. It has gradually grown from 5.5 to 5.8 to 6cm – and still they have not done anything! He has had a wealth of tests, and they say he is going to have surgery, but this has been going on for months. It would seem that they would rather wait for the aneurysm to burst than to proceed with surgery! Of course, had they sent him to see a cardiologist when recommended by the specialists, perhaps some of his current symptoms might never have happened. I suspect the cost of this surgery is holding back the procedure, but had they provided preventive care early on, this may not ever have been necessary!
I have also seen any number of men complete as many classes as possible and do everything within their power to show the Parole Board that they have changed only to be met by a flop, weeks beyond when the Parole Board should have gotten back to them. The sadness and disappointment on their faces is heartbreaking!
The term “rehabilitation,” though used freely throughout Policy Directives, is merely that – a term.
The “system” is not going to wake up until the general public wakes up. The men and women behind those bars and barbed wire are our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children and friends. How can WE, as citizens, allow our very own to be treated as they are being treated? It is NOT right. It is NOT humane. Nor is it CHRIST-LIKE.
~ Louise Reichert

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