In October 2013, The Vera Institute of Justice organized a tour of prisons in Germany and the Netherlands with the intent to educate American delegates about the systems of incarceration in other countries. The condition of prisons in these countries was surprising to Americans because they were so different from our own. The guards treated the prisoners with dignity and respect by talking with them out of a genuine interest in what they had to say. The policies of those prisons also generated a culture of independence and self-reliance: Prisoners were allowed to make their own meals and wear their own clothes. In addition, to give prisoners a sense of purpose and to prepare them for life outside the prison, every incarcerated person was required to have a job.

Those are practices prisons in the United States should seek to emulate. The treatment of inmates in our detention centers is abhorrent. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union called three prisoners to testify in a federal case against the state of Mississippi. The inmates, who were held at East Mississippi Correctional Facility, described horrifying sanitary conditions and decrepit facilities, such as plumbing problems so severe that fecal matter would come out of showerheads in bathrooms and drains in cells, and the kitchen would be infested with roaches.  

Prisons in the U.S. are also severely understaffed. Every position from guards to mental health specialists are in short supply. In St. Clair Correctional Facility, an infamously violent prison in Alabama, a mentally ill inmate said his monthly check-ups were usually only about five to 10 minutes long. Guards are few and far in between, allowing ample time for violence and injustice to proliferate. Sometimes, to get guards’ attention, inmates will create emergency situations like lighting fires or cutting their wrists

The lengths to which prisoners will go to access a corrections officer demonstrate that America does not have enough guards keeping prisons functional. Since prison staff are the sole authority over prisoners’ wellbeing, they ought to be reasonably accessible, but because there are so few of them — the South Mississippi Correctional Institution has an inmate-to-guard ratio of 23 to one — and because they only respond to the most desperate calls for help, inmates are largely left to deal with problems themselves. There are a few reasons why there are so few guards. The first is that most people simply do not want to work in prisons because guards are paid low wages for brutal work, like breaking up fights. The average salary is $44,000 per year, and correctional officers are the second most likely profession to be non-fatally assaulted on the job. In addition, many prisons house inmates far above their capacity — in 2013, more than 17 states were holding inmates above capacity. In Illinois, for instance, prisons were at 151 percent capacity.

Another reason for the harsh conditions in prisons stems from their design. The belief that all criminals must be isolated from society has lead to prisons being some of the most secluded parts of civilization, from their geography to their architecture. Prisons are often built in remote locations, where few people ever travel. This is mainly for public safety, but it also leads to a startling lack of oversight. The most interaction many Americans have with prisons is passing them on the highway, so few people ever see what lies beyond the barbed wire fences. Even when government agencies inspect prisons, they sometimes warn prisons in advance of their arrival, giving the staff time to prepare. This startling lack of oversight has to be addressed. By instituting policies that would open the system up to more scrutiny, we can ensure that prison guards do not mistreat inmates.

This obviously does not mean dangerous, violent offenders should be in close contact with the general public. But any effective reform would, however, entail fundamentally changing the structure of detention centers to offer inmates more agency and autonomy, thus helping the incarcerated acclimate to conditions similar to those they will be released into. That will make the transition to life outside of prison easier, helping them stay out of trouble.

At the center of prison reform is ending mass incarceration. The morality of unnecessarily incarcerating people aside, having fewer people in prisons would make the job of prison guards easier because they would have fewer inmates to watch, and it would prevent more violence from breaking out.

These changes would not just improve the living conditions of prisoners, they would make the entire corrections system far more effective because emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment would bring down our recidivism rate, which is when released prisoners reoffend. Studies demonstrate that vocational programs and educational opportunities in prisons decrease the likelihood of rearrest after release by over 50 percent. Since the criminal justice system should help inmates become productive members of society, the recidivism rate ought to be one of the most telling statistics of its success. As such, rehabilitation programs should be at the forefront of prison reform.

The issues in U.S. prisons are not just a problem for prisoners, they are a reflection of our country’s morals. We as a society are collectively responsible for their treatment, meaning the despicable state of corrections facilities is a failure on our part. As a nation that cherishes liberty, we ought to treat the removal of our esteemed freedoms with the utmost seriousness. We should be deeply disturbed at the current conditions of those we incarcerate and take actions for change. By decreasing the incarceration rate, increasing the number of guards in prisons and investing in education and vocational programs, our corrections centers can become better for inmates, prison staff and the country.

Joel Weiner can be reached at jgweiner@umich.edu.

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