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Does Prison Work? – Teen Ink

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“Every country in the world has a prison system of some sort,” (Worldpopulationreview) but when asked the question of “What is the purpose of prison” the answer is often ambiguous. That is because this is a question with no definitive answer, but most nations use prison as a way to deter people from committing crimes and to punish and rehabilitate those who have committed crimes.  This is evident in the prison’s education and substance use disorder treatment programs, which are used to help prisoners live a crime-free life after they leave prison. However, this process does not work, as up to 83% of state prisoners are arrested again within nine years of their release (BJS). Thus, it is evident that the United States prison system neglects the rehabilitation aspect of prison to emphasize punishment and profit.
What is prioritized around the world in successful prison facilities is not a priority in the US. Rehabilitation is not an important aspect of the prison system and is instead an afterthought. One reason for this is the fact that some United States prison systems are privatized and run as businesses. The United States has the world’s largest private prison population, with over 1.5 million people across the nation, and this number seems to be on a trend upward as the population of inmates in private prison has increased by 47% in the time period from 2000-2016, whereas the non privatized population has only increased 9% (Sentencingproject). And, although this may not seem bad, it is important to recognize the core elements of running a business. To run a successful business, leaders must make enough money to not only stay afloat but also be profitable. And usually, if it needs to increase the money coming in to balance the costs of running the business, it comes in the form of working extra hours or raising the price of goods; but with prisons, this is not possible. The only way prisons make money is by increasing their inmate population and diminishing the quality of life and quality of rehabilitation for prisoners by cutting programs to increase their profit. This is not ideal as America, being a capitalist sate, due to the current profits that this process yields will not be inclined to fix this issue. And because of this, this prison system will likely stay stagnant and unacceptable unless change is brought forward, looking past the profits to truly benefit everyone.
Another big fallacy with the concept of privatization, profitable prisons is that if they are effective in rehabilitation their inmates successfully — logically, this makes no sense because if they did rehabilitate their inmates, then they would not have a business. This is apparent in Rogelio Sanchez State Prison as due to budget constraints the prison had to discard their drug rehabilitation class despite “85% of the prison population [having] an active substance use disorder or was incarcerated for a crime involving drugs or drug use.” (NationalInstituteonDrugAbuse). Sanchez state prison’s budget was only 9.4% of what they were proposed and promised, meaning they decided to undercut funding for rehabilitation in favor of other departments deemed more important (Borderzine). This problem is not apparent in other countries such as Norway or Sweden, which do not have prisons run privately and instead focus on rehabilitation. For example, in Norway, the Norwegian Correctional Service, a government-run program, is “…responsible for the implementation of detention and punishment in a way that is reassuring for the society and for preventing crimes.” In these countries, the recidivism, or the rate that inmates who are released end up back in prison, is much lower than Norway’s recidivism rate is 20%, Sweden’s rate is 40%, and the US’s rate is 76.6% (Worldpopulationreview). This difference cannot solely be attributed to the purposes of the prisons but more so the implications that the purposes bring. The idea of prison as a business creates less incentive for American systems to strive for 100% success in rehabilitation.
Additionally, rehabilitation is being neglected because it is not profitable for prison systems, and instead, punishment is the main priority. While rehabilitation may seem complex, it boils down to the “… process of helping inmates grow and change, allowing them to separate themselves from the environmental factors that made them commit a crime in the first place” (Study). And although rehabilitation won’t be 100% effective, it is imperative that prisons attempt it as this process of rehabilitation has shown to be effective in other countries by their low recidivism rate. In Norway, their prison system was just like the US’s. They focused on what they deemed “revenge” rather than rehabilitation, and as a result, their tendency for criminals to re-offend was 60-70%, just like the United States. But in 1990, the ethos of the Norwegian Correctional Service focused on the latter vs the former, and the results of this legislation is apparent in the aforementioned recidivism rate of 20% (BBC). This process deconstructed the very basis of prison as it created a much more accepting, calming, and welcoming environment rather than treating the inmates like they are animals in a zoo. In this new era of Norwegian prisons, guards, now called prison officers, and inmates complete calming and developmental activities together. These inmates spent more time out of the cell than in the cell, and this allowed the prison officers to ‘“…really interact with prisoners, to talk to them and to motivate them.”’ (BBC) This emphasis on the wellness of the inmates is not parallel in the United States. For example, in the aforementioned example of Rogelio Sanchez State Prison, they decided to scrap its drug rehabilitation program despite it being vital to the well-being and recovery of its inmates due to a lack of budget. This proves that rehabilitation is not at the forefront of the legislators’ minds, as they allowed one of the most important rehabilitation programs to be discarded due to budgetary concerns.
 Understanding the services that are provided to inmates is vital in coming up with a solution to this situation. One vital service is the work program.  In America, inmates are given the chance to learn new skills and make goods for people outside the prison walls in exchange for money. Although this may sound like a good program for these inmates to make money and possibly benefit their families, this program falls short where it matters the most, pay. In California, inmates are paid as low as 0.08 dollars an hour, which is a 99.55% decrease from California’s minimum wage (PrisonJournalismProject). This pay is highly disproportionate to the labor that these inmates are providing. According to the ACLU, “The state of California has come to rely on prison labor to such a degree that it has affected state policy.” (ACLU) It is clear prison owners do not care about the workers improving themselves, but rather take this potentially dually beneficial program and exploit it. With some of these workers typically spending 6 hours a day working, and 20 days a month, and getting paid nearly nothing for it, this raises the question of why are they spending this time working for pennies when they could be spending these same hours trying to achieve their best-self possible through various programs? The working programs of prisons only highlight where the priorities of prison owners are: for themselves rather than for the good of the inmates.
The problem with the United States prison system does not just occur in the prisons themselves but is rooted in the entire justice system, which punishes and gives verdicts that aren’t beneficial to the offender or society. A glaring example of this is shown in the excessive punishment of nonviolent, victimless crimes, or crimes that do not directly affect other people. This results in the disruption of households and creates a cycle of poverty within these families as a result of a criminal sentence which jeopardizes access to work, housing and education. For example, the “War on Drugs” was a global campaign led by the United States government that criminalized drugs as a way to deter people and eliminate the illegal drug trade in America. This led to a 400% increase of incarcerated citizens over the past 40 years and “… disproportionately affected low-income and minority populations, who now make up roughly three-fifths and two-thirds of the prison population, respectively” (americanactionforum). This results in these affected families being stuck in poverty, as found in a study by Washington education which shows that “..children under the age of 18 whose fathers were incarcerated live in neighborhoods that are more socioeconomically disadvantaged than do children whose fathers have never been in prison” (washingtonedu). Because these families are affected by the mass and excessive incarcerations, they are now in poverty and more likely to commit crimes as “[a] 1% rise in poverty would amount to a 2.16% rise in crime and a 2.57% rise in violent crime (4-6). Therefore, an increase in poverty directly increases crime rates in America” (HiloHawaii). These statistics show that mass imprisonment leads to negative results among communities, specifically among impoverished communities, and with “…no evidence that punitive enforcement measures significantly deter the use of drugs” (penalereform). this enforces the claim that the current prison system doesn’t work as it predominantly has negative effects.
Despite the negatives of the prison system, there are however some positives that do work in the current system. This is made up of the deterrence of severe, violent crimes. For example, in the case of first-degree murders, the majority of states impose severe punishments including life, life without the possibility of parole, and the death penalty. These potential punishments create a deterrent from committing these crimes, especially for those who have already been arrested and released. For example, if one were to think about robbing a bank in order to support his family, he might think twice as the punishment for armed robbery is around 20 years (CriminalDefenseLawyer). The severe punishment alone prevents many crimes from happening because people can’t fathom spending that much time locked up. Additionally, while prison does not work for all inmates, there is a minority percentage that recovers from their experience in jail. This is due to mentors within the walls, and certain programs that have not been cut, yet.
While the prison system does help deter crime and does adequately punish those who deserve it, its overall impact has been negative on society, and thus in its current state, the prison system does not work. Its neglect of rehabilitation in order to focus on other things such as profits and punishment proves that the prison system is dismantled. Yet, it can be successful with reform. By changing the ultimate goals of prison, and replacing the focus on rehabilitation, prisons can become a positive influence for people who have lost their way. The first step, though, is removing American hubris and greed. 
Works Cited
Improving In-Prison Rehabilitation Programs, 6 Dec. 2017, lao.ca.gov/Publications/Report/3720.
Recidivism Rates by Country 2022, worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/recidivism-rates-by-country.
10, Cory Booker
stated on July, et al. “PolitiFact – How the War on Drugs Affected Incarceration Rates.” @Politifact, www.politifact.com/factchecks/2016/jul/10/cory-booker/how-war-drugs-affected-incarceration-rates/.
 Mariel Alper. “2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014).” Bureau of Justice Statistics, bjs.ojp.gov/library/publications/2018-update-prisoner-recidivism-9-year-follow-period-2005-2014 An estimated 68% of released,within the first 3 years.
Basti, Kara Gotsch and Vinay, et al. “Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons.” The Sentencing Project, 2 Aug. 2018, www.sentencingproject.org/publications/capitalizing-on-mass-incarceration-u-s-growth-in-private-prisons/.
Basti, Kara Gotsch and Vinay, et al. “Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons.” The Sentencing Project, 2 Aug. 2018, www.sentencingproject.org/publications/capitalizing-on-mass-incarceration-u-s-growth-in-private-prisons/.
Benson, Etienne. “Rehabilitate or Punish?” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/monitor/julaug03/rehab.
Bryant, Sean. “The Business Model of Private Prisons.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 24 Mar. 2022, www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/062215/business-model-private-prisons A private prison can offer,private prison makes its money.  study.com/academy/lesson/criminal-rehabilitation-programs-statistics-definition.html Criminal rehabilitation is essentially the,crime in the first place www.bbc.com/news/stories-48885846 .
“Criminal Justice DrugFacts.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 22 Mar. 2022, nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/criminal-justice.
Fathi, David. “Prisoners Are Getting Paid $1.45 a Day to Fight the California Wildfires.” American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, 15 Nov. 2018, www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights/prisoners-are-getting-paid-145-day-fight-california-wildfires The state of California has,it has affected state policy.
Hayes, Tara O’Neill, et al. “Incarceration and Poverty in the United States.” AAF, 2 July 2020, www.americanactionforum.org/research/incarceration-and-poverty-in-the-united-states/.
Kha, Tue, and Prison Journalism Project July 30 Tue Kha. “Working Salary in Prison.” Prison Journalism Project, 4 Apr. 2022, prisonjournalismproject.org/2021/07/30/working-salary-in-prison/.
Mettille, Morgan. “The United States Prison System.” ArcGIS StoryMaps, Esri, 5 Dec. 2020, storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/c6ec37a0dbd2469eaa0808e843b62482.
“Take Online Courses. Earn College Credit. Research Schools, Degrees & Careers.” Study.com | Take Online Courses. Earn College Credit. Research Schools, Degrees & Careers, study.com/academy/lesson/criminal-rehabilitation-programs-statistics-definition.html Criminal rehabilitation is essentially thecrime in the first place.
Drug Abuse, National Institute on Drug Abuse, June 2020,     nida.nih.gov/sites/default/files/drugfacts-criminal-justice.pdf . 
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Incarceration Rates by Country 2022, worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/incarceration-rates-by-country. 
What inspired me to write this essay was the fact that on the internet I saw a graph showing the difference in recidivism rates between the US and other countries aroudn the world. I then decided to write this essay and submitted it to an essay competition
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