As Patrick, a former inmate states, “It started with the shaving of my facial hair and continued with the jumpsuit I was issued. I looked just like every other inmate. Even after I reached general population, the theme continued. All shoes were white. All pants are blue jeans. All shirts are blue and short-sleeved. My coffee mug is just like your coffee mug. Add a sticker and it will be taken away. Inmates are desperate to have anything that is different. It is one way to try to hold on to your individuality. And the system will do almost anything to prevent that.”
Toward a formulation of Proutist policy on prisons and criminal justice.
This paper is structured in three parts. The first looks at the phenomenon of mass incarceration, and the problems associated with it, especially in the US. The second considers what the founder of Prout, P. R. Sarkar had to say on the issue, and also reviews some historical context, and the third considers alternatives and possible policy formulations. Much of the research in this paper is drawn from research I did for my book, “Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir.”
CAUSES OF INCARCERATION
More than 10.35 million people are imprisoned throughout the world. According to prisonstudies.org, the world prison population has grown by almost 20% since the year 2000. The female prison population has increased by 50% in the same period, compared with an 18% increase globally for men. The United States, China, Russia, Brazil, India, Thailand, Mexico and Iran have the highest figures of incarceration. The countries with the highest rate as a percentage of the population are the Seychelles, the U.S., Turkmenistan, Cuba, and El Salvador.
The U.S. locks up more people than any other country in the world. In 2017, U.S. federal and state prisons housed over 2 million people, or 1.6 percent of the adult population. The U.S. has five percent of the world’s population and has created 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Actually, for much of the 20th century, the national incarceration rate hovered at only around one tenth of one percent of the population. And crime rates have been declining in recent years, depending on the type of crime. The violent crime rate peaked in the early ‘90s and has been going downhill since.
So, why these soaring numbers of incarcerated?
According to researchers, the immediate causes of the incarceration epidemic include: the growth of drug laws which punished minor drug offenses with major prison time; “zero tolerance” policing; and mandatory sentencing laws, which have prevented judges from exercising discretion.
The ‘three strikes’ law, which sentences three-time committers of crimes to a life sentence, also means more older adults are being incarcerated than ever, often compounding time for crimes (strikes one and two) committed long ago.
Prosecutorial zeal plays a role as well. And common challenges for parolees, like missing appointments because of lack of transportation or housing, or being unable to pay fees, means thousands go back, pointlessly, to prison. (Although these factors are specific to the U.S., they do shed general light on issues facing other countries.)
But if crime rates are dropping as the prison population grows, doesn’t this mean that putting people away curbs crime?
In fact, the opposite is true. A 2015 study from New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice shows that prison played no role in plummeting crime rates over the past thirteen years. Rather, certain social factors have affected the drop, including an aging population, changes in income, and decreased alcohol consumption. The study even warned that high levels of incarceration can increase future crime.
Historian Robert Perkinson notes, “By herding together edgy individuals against their will and enacting daily rituals of subjection, even the best prisons tend to foster more conflict than cooperation.”
One problem facing criminal justice reform, another historian, Lawrence Friedman, writes, is that “a large segment of the population positively lusts to believe that criminality is raw, naked evil, the devil in human form. At the same time, millions seem to think that criminals are perhaps born that way… In both cases, rehabilitation, coddling, excuses, and psychological treatment seem a dangerous waste of time.”
This perspective runs counter to research, and to a Neo-humanist outlook, which lies at the heart of Prout.
Such an outlook encourages us to recognize the potential in each person, and strive to create a social and economic system that allows for and encourages this expression of potential and growth. In the prison context, that might mean creating an environment and offering programming that not only reverses the sense of hopelessness that most inmates feel, but offers a new start in life. In the larger picture, it would mean creating an economy that leaves no one behind, an economy that offers alternatives to participating in criminal activity.
The incarcerated include those awaiting trial in local and county jails, perhaps unable to pay their bail (about a quarter of the incarcerated population), those locked up in the extensive state systems (more than half), and those convicted of federal crimes who are placed in federal prisons.
Roughly eight percent of U.S. prisoners are housed in private, for-profit prisons. It’s here that capitalism encounters the injustice system. The insidious thing about for-profit prisons is that they need a full house to make a profit, and so they require municipalities in which they’re built to keep arresting and incarcerating people. Meanwhile, their executives lobby Congress for tougher crime policies.
Private prisons tend to avoid taking sick and elderly inmates, since health care is a huge expense. One scholar studying Mississippi’s system found that inmates in private prisons received many more conduct violations than those in government-run ones. This made it harder for them to get parole, and, on average, they served two to three more months of time, the implication being that private prisons work to hold on to their inmates longer.
Prisons are generally crowded, noisy places. There’s little privacy, and you’re living with others who may be unpredictable or violent. Prison designers, as researcher Victor Hassine puts it, have developed “a precise and universal alphabet of fear that is carefully assembled and arranged—bricks, steel, uniforms, colors, odors, shapes and management style”—in order to control the conduct of prison populations.
Conversations with inmates confirm that there’s great uncertainty living on the cellblock. Buttons get pushed; expressing your feelings is not encouraged. People in prison live under the threat of being “punked out,” becoming the sexual slave of another inmate.
Research shows that inmates struggle with anxiety when they think about life after prison. They worry about the financial obligations that wait for them on the outside. It won’t be easy to find good employment saddled with a criminal record.
An insider has lost a lot—income, relationships, social status. He or she likely struggles with a sense of identity. What does it mean to no longer be a free citizen? Who am I, in this place?
Young people in prison often grapple with an alphabet soup of psychological issues—Conduct Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. Many have intellectual disabilities. Only three percent of prisoners were classified as proficient in reading and writing in a National Center for Education Statistics literacy assessment in 2003.
Getting old in prison is not easy, either. Simple actions, like climbing to a top bunk, become extremely difficult. Mobility aids for older adults, such as handicapped toilets and handrails, don’t exist in many prisons.
The Prison Policy Initiative has shown that people who go to prison are usually poor. They’re often unable to afford good legal representation, and usually don’t know their options. Generally, laws are slanted in favor of the well-to-do. “Law protects power and property,” Lawrence Friedman writes, “safeguards wealth, and perpetuates the subordinate status of the people on the bottom.”
For some people, it was the sale or possession of marijuana that landed them inside. When it comes to marijuana, there’s a disproportionate conviction rate for young people of color, and possession of even small amounts of a substance that is arguably less dangerous than alcohol can mean long sentences and shattered lives.
Phone service on the inside is exploitative. Companies providing it often focus only on prison phone service, and their profits are enormous. One inmate in a county jail paid $29 for a 15-minute call.
The Prison Policy Initiative asserts that perpetually low wages in prison are problematic and need to be seen in light of the increasing expenses the incarcerated face, both inside and after release. With little savings, it can be difficult to afford living expenses after release. Their success “depends largely on financial stability, which is undermined by low wages, nickel-and-diming through ‘user fees,’ mandatory deductions, and work that does little to prepare them for work outside of prisons.”
People released from prison or who are on parole face a whole new set of challenges, including difficulty in finding housing, jobs and other services. Most job applications ask you to check a box if you have a felony conviction, and many employers will throw out the application when they see that box checked. A prison sentence leaves a gap in your resumé that’s hard to explain. There is, encouragingly, a movement to ‘ban the box.’ By 2016, 24 states and more than 150 cities and counties had done so, and some large corporations had joined them.
Parolees are also not allowed to have contact with others on parole. But if people close to you have convictions, it can be hard to maintain ties of family or friendship, ties which could ordinarily help you to stay clean.
Finally, only thirty-eight states restore voting rights to felons after completion of sentence. Iowa and eight other states do not, relying on the pleasure of the governor or courts for restoration of such rights. This is another layer of procedural prejudice.
Inmates face all sorts of terrible health issues. A Department of Justice report notes that in 2011–12, half of state and federal prisoners and local jail inmates reported ever having a chronic condition. (Chronic conditions include cancer, high blood pressure, stroke-related problems, diabetes, heart-related problems, kidney-related problems, arthritis, asthma, and cirrhosis of the liver.)
As dementia is increasing due to an aging inmate population the number of seriously mentally ill inmates remains high.
Another report notes that half of the people incarcerated in prisons and two-thirds of those in jails had either “serious psychological distress,” or a history of mental health problems. Yet only about a third of those reporting serious psychological distress were currently receiving treatment. America’s prisons have become de facto warehouses for people with mental health challenges.
Putting people in jail and prison became the state’s strategy for dealing with a health crisis created by drug use and dependency—75 percent of mental health cases involve substance abuse.
Nineteen percent of adult inmates are illiterate, and up to 60 percent are functionally illiterate, that is, lacking the literacy for coping with most everyday situations. (In contrast, the national adult illiteracy rate stands at 4 percent, with up to 23 percent functionally illiterate.)
A 1997 longitudinal study conducted for the U.S. Department of Education and focusing on three states noted that, “attending school behind bars reduces the likelihood of re-incarceration by 29 percent. Translated into savings, every dollar spent on education returned more than two dollars to the citizens in reduced prison costs.”
Most strikingly, Texas reported the extraordinary recidivism impacts of postsecondary education: “Two years after release, the overall recidivism rate for college degree holders was as low as 12 percent, and inversely differentiated by type of degree.”
In the U.S., African Americans make up 12 percent of the total population and 37 percent of prison inmates.
A look at U.S. history, at how this country was built— through slavery, economic imperialism, exploitation of poor immigrant working folks, violation of treaties, institutional and general racism-offers some clues as to why.
For African Americans, the criminal justice system serves as a gateway into a larger system of permanent marginalization. That’s the argument legal scholar Michelle Alexander has made in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Our contemporary justice system, Alexander claims, rivals Jim Crow, the post-Civil War system of laws designed to hold black people back, which gave rise to a period marked by lynching and other forms of violence against blacks.
African Americans are no more likely to use or sell drugs than whites, but they’re made criminals at much higher rates for doing so. White students use cocaine at seven times the rate of black students. White young people are a third more likely to have sold drugs than black ones, and yet, black incarceration for drug offenses is six times higher in Iowa.
Some of this can be traced to the origins of the explosion in the U.S. prison population. In the mid-‘80s, predominantly black inner city communities suffered economic collapse. Crack hit the streets, easier to sell than cocaine, and became the drug of choice in many cities. Prior to ’86, the longest sentence for drug possession was one year. President Reagan pushed for the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which laid out mandatory minimum sentences, and a more severe punishment for crack than cocaine.
All of this is happening, of course, in the context of ongoing police brutality toward people of color. The spate of police shootings of black men is nothing new; it’s only coming to the fore because cell phone technology has made it much easier to publicize such incidents.
“Women in prison have some issues that are similar to men’s,” a professor who works in prisons, Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, says, “but they also have different ones. They have higher rates of being sexually abused. They have more mental health concerns. They often lose their kids when they go inside. They may be dealing with poverty. They have chronic health issues, and substance abuse issues. They’re often in destructive relationships, and when they get out, they still have to deal with those relationships.” Women fall in love in prison, too, and may change their whole identity around sexuality.
Male hierarchies abound in the criminal justice system, including administrative hierarchies and the chain of command among prison guards. Women and prisoners hold the lowest positions. And, from coast to coast, male guards rape female prisoners with impunity.
Three-quarters of women prisoners are survivors of domestic violence. Many have been imprisoned for self-defense against a husband or boyfriend. In some instances the police arrive at the scene of a domestic violence situation and arrest the victim. Many women get arrested because their husbands or boyfriends were involved in the drug trade.
“Unfortunately, neither the Federal Bureau of Prisons nor any state department of corrections actually attempts to keep families together,” adds writer and prison activist Maya Schenwar.
For example, women who give birth in prison are immediately separated from their babies. Up to ten percent of women enter prison pregnant. “They are not given adequate nutrition, and they often do not have the option of an abortion, even though it is supposed to be legal everywhere in the U.S.,” Schenwar writes. “After her baby was born, my sister was immediately shackled to the bedposts. She was able to spend a little over a day with her daughter—though it was hard to hold the baby while chained to the bed.”
Finally, the degree of trauma people in prison have faced can be astonishing. Stories of absent, alcoholic or emotionally abusive parents are common. There’s an official checklist for causes of trauma, and most prisoners can tick off many of these points. Drugs. Witnessing a homicide. Witnessing or experiencing a natural disaster. Witnessing sexual abuse. Being sexually abused.
Such trauma has been shown to play a role in shaping criminal behavior. So-called “adverse childhood events” can actually change the cellular structure of the brain. Says UK researcher Paul Renn, “Research findings relating to young offenders show a history of maltreatment and loss in up to 90 percent of the sample population.”
This link between trauma and criminal behavior should be a guidepost for how to reform the justice system. As we will see, P. R. Sarkar, founder of Prout, clearly advocated for recognizing the human potential within every person, for nourishing the capacity to change, grow, and reform.
What about the other side of the equation, the victims of crimes? The harm done to victims—long lasting and traumatic—hovers over many of these cases.
Jonna Williams-Kasprzak was the victim of a brutal sexual assault when she was thirteen, abducted in broad daylight by a repeat offender who was high. She’s now 37. She bristles at the idea of calling what offenders have done ‘mistakes.’
“While I do value offender rehabilitation and can absolutely see the benefit for it individually and for a community, it’s noteworthy that I pay for my own rehabilitation. I pay for my recovery from the sexual assault. For every opportunity offered to offenders, I want to ask, are those same opportunities offered to victims? I have to advocate for myself for things the average person would never consider.”
“Still,” she continues, “the one thing I did always hope for in my case is that the offender did something to be productive and constructive and he didn’t just sit in prison watching TV. I hoped he did something that gave back.”
It’s vitally important to recognize victim experiences in the overall criminal justice story.
It’s also important to remember that prisoners, like members of any group, are not all the same. Each has an individual trajectory. Many are sincere in their desire to atone for their crimes, start over, and better their lives. They may need to reach a new level of self-awareness before they can turn in a different direction. And that can take time.
And sure, some will remain stuck, mired, in self-pity, self-aggrandizement, or self-ignorance. Maybe some are opportunistic.
Engagement in pro-social activities, like art and music, is very important. It may not always be enough to stop offenders in the first place, but it can show them that they can develop their lives in a different direction.
“Fill their lives with pro-social stuff and it reduces the risk,” Karla Miller, who works as a trauma therapist and counselor with sex offenders, says. “They can learn to meet their psychological needs in a different way.” She rues the fact that treatment programs are being cut. With fewer treatment options, people tend to lapse into dysfunctional behavior and disease, and it costs more to treat in the long run.