Prison: civilization's 'dark flower'

We jail people when we have despaired of any other way of dealing with their abhorrent behavior. But the vast majority will one day re-enter civilized society. Does prison make it more or less likely they will fit in?

Gregory Bull/AP
A prison guard oversees inmates on their way to dinner at Calipatria (Calif.) State Prison.

Prisons have been around since the dawn of civilization. For all that time, prisons have been a dilemma. 

We lock up murderers, thugs, and thieves both to punish them and to keep them away from law-abiding citizens. Yet prisons are notorious hotbeds of crime, from which first-time offenders too often emerge as hardened criminals. We spend millions persuading prisoners to go straight, giving them occupational training, and coaching them on reentry into civilized society. Yet the mere mention of a criminal record can disqualify a felon from employment, wilt a budding friendship, and relegate an ex-convict to a shadow life of halfway houses, dependence on charity, and possible recidivism.

Well, we tell ourselves, they had it coming; their victims are the ones who really suffered. Lock ’em up and throw away the key. But we also believe in redemption and second chances, at least for ourselves and those we know and love. If anyone close to us spends time behind bars, we experience – and are appalled by – the inhumanity of the penal system, the institution that Nathaniel Hawthorne called the “black flower of civilized society.” 

And here’s a practical fact: While there’s no denying that criminal behavior leads to dire consequences, there’s also no denying that the eventual outcome of prison for the vast majority of inmates will be their release back into society. Less than 3 percent of the 1.6 million people in US prisons are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. The rest will at some point be living in our neighborhoods.

More than ever, that point is now. As Sean Miller reports a Monitor Weekly cover story, record numbers of inmates are leaving prison because of tightening budgets for correctional programs, new thinking about how to handle nonviolent offenders, and the completion of sentences by a bulge of people convicted during the higher-crime, tougher-sentencing era of the 1970s and ’80s.

Sean takes us to California and tracks the difficult post-prison prospects of a handful of men convicted of major crimes – murder, drug trafficking, gang violence. All now say they are sorry for what they did, weary of prison, and ready to abide by the law. “Most of them just got tired of it,” says Sean. “And most of them acknowledge what they’ve done wrong.” They have served their time, sworn themselves to self-improvement, gained job skills, and are hoping for a second chance. 

But life after incarceration, which has never been easy, is especially tough in today’s job market. With time on their hands and few options for earning a living, it is too easy for ex-cons to end up hanging out with old friends and returning to bad behavior – especially to drugs, which most abused before and even during prison. 

What everyone is worried about, says Sean, is that some felon among the thousands being released will commit a shocking act that tars other ex-prisoners and prompts a backlash against de-incarceration. Fear of a new Willie Horton – whose crimes while on prison furlough became a factor in the 1988 presidential campaign – has police, ex-cons, social workers, and parole officers on edge. 

We send men and women to prison when we have despaired of any other way of dealing with their abhorrent behavior. But prison is not a permanent solution. It is at best an opportunity to change a criminal mentality into a moral one. We owe it to the prisoner, the victim, and to us to make that the permanent solution.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. 

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