Justice system neglects prisoners’ agency, futures

Credit: Holly Liu / Credit: Holly Liu /
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Somehow, the U.S. has become an overeager sentry, a guard of the thousands of human-filled cartons littering the nation. These prisons contain the country’s convicts, the two million unforgiven offenders conveniently estranged from society in these effective human warehouses.

But are our prisons truly effective? We often forget that the vast majority of these “unfortunates” will someday rejoin us, changed by the months, years, or decades spent forgotten in a box. And, unfortunately, they are usually changed for the worse. The justice system has become an efficient factory of criminals, churning out convicts more hardened and knowledgeable than when they entered.

Prison conditions have deteriorated into appallingly unsafe environments. Inmates learn to distrust everyone, especially the guards, these forgotten sentinels who are often no less in need of correction than those whom they watch. If we imprison a person and treat them as hostile and untrustworthy, regardless of the atrocities they’ve committed, how can we expect them to behave as anything else?

We, the supposed leaders of the free world, are in possession of a “correctional” system that fails to correct. It is our responsibility to invest in erasing this stain on the American justice system. Rather than continuing to dehumanize these millions whom we’ve imprisoned, we must teach them to be productive members of our society again.
The first step of transformation is to ensure that the prisoners, while still punished for their crimes, are treated as human beings. This begins with eliminating corruption among the supervisors and guards of each prison.

One way this may be accomplished is by increasing federal oversight of these systems. More vigorous employment qualifications, and re-evaluating the hiring and promotion process for correctional officers would also help ensure their fair treatment.

Next, while reform programs for inmates do exist, they are not built into the justice system. Mandated access to resources such as literature, science, and philosophy is essential to development. Shaka Senghor, a second-degree murderer, served 19 years in various prisons, seven of which were in solitary confinement. He is now a college lecturer, author, and director’s fellow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, and attributes his reformation to literature where he was able to “free [his] mind and expand [his] thinking.”

Those who criticize the financial cost of such programs should consider the astounding size of our prison system. We currently imprison 2.3 million people across the country — to the point where the U.S. has more jails than colleges. California, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are the few states who have approached reform determinedly in their prison systems, and have thus succeeded in reducing their prison populations by more than 20 percent since 2009. These states are proof that lighter sentences are possible without compromising public safety.

This can be achieved through realistic alternatives to the aggressive sentences that are common now. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law suggested expanding on alternatives such as drug treatment programs, community service for the 25 percent of prisoners convicted only of nonviolent, low-level crimes, and the termination of mandatory minimum sentences.

These ambitions are more possible than many realize. As Bill Keller observed in an article published in The New York Times the current climate in Congress is actually very amenable to the prospect of reform, for several reasons, one of which is that Republicans are seeking a bipartisan victory to reassure the people that the government is competent and reliable.

With each convicted offender, our justice system takes upon itself the responsibility of their life for the next two or twelve or twenty years. It removes that person’s agency over their own life and authorizes itself to control every aspect. Unfortunately, for decades, we have neglected this responsibility, sentencing millions to abusive environments with minimal prospect of a viable future. With support for prison reform now growing greater in this country, it is time accept this responsibility and transform our system into one of reform.