The True Purpose of Prisons

Several weeks ago, I attended a talk sponsored by the Greenberg Center for Learning and Tolerance, where former inmate Shaka Senghor shared his life story and called for radical change to the American prison system. A scholarship student, Senghor ran away from an abusive family at the age of 14, resorting to drug dealing to make some kind of living for the next five years until he was sent to prison for second-degree murder. In prison, he was lucky to encounter a series of mentors who encouraged him to read, study, and eventually write. He wrote a number of books while enduring seven years of solitary confinement, and recently released his memoir, “Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison.” Senghor has won numerous awards, including the 2015 Manchester University Innovator of the Year Award and the 2012 Black Male Engagement Leadership Award, and speaks all across the world, inspiring empathy and action.

Stories like Senghor’s are rare. His was a personal success, not a success of the prison system. His story only confirms the message of prison activists across our country, that the American prison system does not work for anyone, inside or outside its walls.

Curious to know more, I spoke with senior Abram Mamet, leader of the Colorado College Prison Project. Mamet became involved in the Prison Project his sophomore year, back when it was a discussion group of only a half dozen students under the guidance of Professor Emeritus Bill Hochman. The club’s discussions first exposed Mamet to the U.S. prison system, and gave him a lens through which to understand race relations in the country. As much as he hated the book in high school, what he had learned from Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” was to “look at prisons, and that’s how you can tell about society.” Mamet aspires to work towards improving prisons after graduation, either as part of an organization like the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition or else as a prison director. “I don’t like the words rehabilitation or reform, because those are laden with connotations of the white man’s burden,” Mamet said. “For a lot of reformers in the 19th and 20th centuries, the goal was to make the incarcerated population look like white men. I’m not interested in that at all. Also, by calling a prison ‘reformed,’ you excuse its future behavior instead of continuing to improve it.”

There are two main fronts in the campaign against mass incarceration, both revealing troubling habits and beliefs at the core of our society. One fight is the effort to reduce the number of people sent to prison in the first place—primarily young, underprivileged men of color incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses—which involves changing laws, improving community relations with police forces, and improving housing and education in underserved areas. Mamet and Senghor both focus on the second problem, which is the quality of life for prisoners once they have already been incarcerated.

Mamet acknowledged that there are both “pragmatic uses and aspirational uses for prison.” The problem with prisons is not so much their existence, but our country’s reasons for believing they should exist.

The most obvious reason to incarcerate someone is as punishment for breaking the law, but Mamet points out that we’re often unclear about what punishment means. For him, “Punishment is something that is consensual. The state says you serve 10 years because you committed a crime. When you admit guilt, your punishment is there; you are consenting to the punishment.” When talking about punishment, however, people are often describing what Mamet and Senghor define as torture. Unlike punishment, “Torture is when you have a power imbalance where you cannot even resist what is being done to you,” Mamet said. In America, we have somehow come to imagine that torture—as punishment—is the purpose of our prison system, where inmates can be treated with violence, confined without human contact, and deprived of any outlet for creativity or individual expression.

So why should we incarcerate people, if not to torture them? I asked Mamet, and as this is the topic of his senior thesis, he was able to give me three insightful reasons why our prison system ought to exist. “Number one is the loss of liberty. When we talk about fundamental human rights, we talk about life, liberty, and property. Life is not something which can be taken away, but liberty is something that can be temporarily pulled from an individual.” This loss of liberty, or the loss of the freedom of movement, is the consensual punishment received for violating the law, as part of our contract with government.

The second reason for the prison system is separation, removing someone from society to keep them from violating anybody else’s rights. But the most controversial claim is number three. The third purpose Mamet believes the prison system should serve is to provide people with “a job, or a purpose in life, or something extra-individual,” which so many people are sent to prison because they lack.

A few decades ago, the idea of having job or skills-training programs in prisons was far from radical. But under the Clinton and Bush administrations, programming virtually disappeared from prisons. Because crime was so high in those years, “we wanted to push the idea that these people need to be alone and cold and walled up and punished—physically punished, mentally, if that makes sense. The thought is, if we’re not allowed to make scars on their bodies, let’s make scars on their minds,” Mamet said. The tactic has undoubtedly failed, with a nationwide five-year recidivism rate of 76 percent revealing that inmates are not being released with the skills they need to succeed in society, but prisons still lack funding to restart programs and the public retains the idea that prison should not be a place for self-improvement.

The above, briefly, are the two main theories why prison reform faces the obstacles it does. The first suggests that impediments are imposed from the top down; politicians and lawmakers willingly allow prisons to persist by passing laws that result in both mass incarceration and decreased funding for prison programming. This theory was widely accepted until Peter K Enns, a CC alumnus, proposed an alternative theory in his book “Incarceration Nation.” Enns suggests that the obstacles are imposed, not from the top down, but from the bottom up; the voting population of the U.S. allows them to persist through its apathy. Realistically, Mamet thinks it’s a little of both: “I think the obstacle is in the individuals who want the prisons to persist, because either A) they are employed by the prison system, B) their community is dependent on it, or C) they are, in fact, related to someone who’s a victim of a crime, and want to see the person in jail.”

While it is true that tens of thousands of people in Colorado and even entire communities are dependent upon prisons for their livelihoods and economies, the third issue Mamet raised reveals perhaps the deepest and most troubling reason we believe that prisons are a necessary part of our social infrastructure: vengeance.

Mamet counts vengeance among the three or four most destructive ideas in human history, an insatiable urge to cause harm which only results in more loss. Yet vengeance is a powerful motivator; protestors outside of Senghor’s talk in Colorado Springs representing Mothers of Murdered Youth held signs saying, “No Reform,” and “She Deserves Justice.” Because our attitudes towards the prison system are often dependent on whether we know an incarcerated person or the victim of a crime, the idea of reform can seem too generous to those who have lost loved ones to crime.

One way to reconcile the idea of justice for both prisoners and victims is to recognize that most crimes perpetrated in the U.S. are victimless and nonviolent, and that future crimes can be prevented by teaching prisoners how to be productive members of society instead of further damaging their mental health. But it is not only the mental health of the inmates that is at stake; vengeance is a particularly harmful way of dealing—or not dealing—with grief. Happiness at the cost of someone else’s unhappiness cannot bring peace of mind; it can only introduce more suffering into the world. One of Senghor’s core beliefs is that hurt people will hurt people, and the cycle never ends.

A prison system that fails to reintroduce productive, skilled, creative citizens into our communities fails the American people both in and outside our prisons. To tell someone that they have no purpose, no hope of redemption, is to deprive them of their humanity. To believe that we will benefit from taking an eye for an eye, a life for a life, is to deprive ourselves of our own humanity.

Yet despite all that is wrong with our prison system, there is hope. The U.S. has the worst prison system in the world, with the most people incarcerated of any country in the world, and for the longest sentences, but it is still better than at any other time in U.S. history. Change is already happening on a local level. Texas, as a result of a strange mixture of religious beliefs and aversion to social welfare, has reintroduced programming into many of its prisons in order to ensure that inmates are ready to work upon their release. By volunteering to run programs at a local prison, even a college student can have a massive impact on the system as a whole. It is programming that gives inmates the skills they need and the purpose they crave to stay out of prison and lower recidivism rates. It is programming that gives inmates a creative outlet and a passion that can alleviate the depression of decades of confinement. It is the lack of programming in prisons that makes ours a system of torture rather than punishment, and we, as individuals, have the power to change that.

Rebecca Glazer

Rebecca Glazer

Rebecca Glazer

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