Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Incarceration: Are we committed to rehabilitation?

I did not ever meet someone who had served time in prison until my early 20s.  I was lucky to not have any family members or close friends incarcerated, while going through my formidable years.   While interning at a West Philadelphia non-profit, I first came into contact with and developed a friendship with someone who had been incarcerated.  When I got to learn more about this individual, the choices he made leading to incarceration and the impact of his incarceration upon his family, I began to question the purpose of prison.

Prison serves many purposes for our society: retribution for violation of law, removing the “bad seeds” from society to insure safety, deterring the general population from criminal behavior, and rehabilitation.  What do I consider the purpose of prison?  What do you consider to be the purpose of prison?    It is interesting how our society places great value upon the first three purposes over the last. 

Often, I find that I will fall into society’s trap, listening to the messages through crime dramas, highly sensationalize media crime coverage, directing me to value a sense of safety over rehabilitation.  These messages put little faith in individual transformation.   When I fall in the trap, I find myself believing that prison is confine society’s "bad seeds" so that “good” people like me are safe.   When I think of the high numbers of people incarcerated in the United States, which far succeeds other nations, it seems reasonable to believe that we are not fully committed to rehabilitation.   This leads me to question, am I committed to rehabilitation?

The man I met is one proof that rehabilitation is possible, as he served his time in prison and did not return.  For many in the United State’s prison system, approximately 40% (who will return to prison within three years of leaving), this is not the case (Pew Foundation's report: State of Recidivism).  Recidivism is a large issue for our country, one that is starting to be more properly addressed within recent years.  Recidivism occurs for two reasons:  having committed a new crime or violation of supervision/parole.   In reading the Pew Foundation’s study State of Recidivism, I noticed that the majority of recidivism cases occurred due to violation of parole.   How does parole serve these individuals?  I question whether prisoners are prepared in prison to meet the expectations of parole out of prison and if there should be more grace extended before parole violators are shipped back to prison.

When you look at Philadelphia’s prison population, the majority of prisoners there last year, had been charged with a minor drug offense, violated parole, or waiting trial.  I can’t help but question if all of these people are so dangerous that they must be “locked up.” Are we using prison to hold people that really don’t need to be there?  

Since starting to work with children whose parents have been imprisoned, I have been able to get a better look into the lives of prisoners, to see the challenges they and their family faces.   Children who have a parent that was and is incarcerated are found to be more likely to be imprisoned when they are adults.  Also, children of the incarcerated are far more likely to engage in risky behaviors and have lower grades in school.   Have any of these children experienced these pains of separation in vain?

From my recent research, it looks as if many states and even the city of Philadelphia have made improvements in the corrections system such as using more parole sentencing for less dangerous offenders.  Also, programs such as re-entry initiatives utilizing mentoring coupled with transitional services have helped to reduce recidivism rates.   Most of the effective re-entry services are starting shortly after someone is incarcerated to provide services that reconcile relationships between the incarcerated and their family as well as preparing them for their return to the community.  These services are what I consider the best methods of rehabilitation. 

By providing an alternative lifestyle with healthy relationships as an option, I think this creates an incentive to change.  Shouldn’t this be the goal, rather than holding someone in a cell for the rest of their lives?  Plus, this is a more cost effective solution.  Why do we still seem to value prison over rehabilitation services?  How has incarceration affected you or your family?  What is the purpose of prison? What does rehabilitation mean to you?  What solutions seem best to you?

No comments:

Post a Comment