“To Extend The Hand Or To Strike With It”: America’s Rehabilitation Problem


Ben Germinara and Nathan Currier

I will now state a fact. We are a country who has a problematic prison system that breeds prisoners, and whether by law or privatized incentives for profit, has created a pandemic problem. The fact that we contain only 5% of the world’s total population but house 25% of its prison population. This many citizens in prison is obviously an expensive problem when you consider that each prisoner costs sixty thousand to upkeep.

Compared to a nation like China, with a nearly 1.3 billion population size, has only 1,548,498 individuals in prison, less than a tenth of their total population. It’s now you begin to see the problem. For context, per 100,000 citizens, America has 737 individuals behind bars, while China has only 118 at the same rate. We beat every nation at this population rate with even the often criticized authoritarian Russia only containing 615 per 100,000. When were beating one of the most authoritarian countries in this statistic, then it seems like the most logical thing to do is to look at ourselves.

Or maybe we don’t. To many, this is the way things should be. We are a country that focuses on punishment with our law system, us being the leading first world country to not have introduced Rehabilitation programs. 75% of the population returns to prison within five years, and often several times, meaning that this population is if anything growing. 84% of state prisons have high school courses. 27% have College courses. All offer Vocational training, but private prisons? 44%. I mean why would a profit-driven company offer school or workforce training? Prisoners are their revenue. During the great depression, most prisons could not be maintained by federal funding alone, and thus were bought up rapidly by private entities who receive government funding based on the Prison population. They quite often would put in harsh or overtop punishments for the simplest of offenses, such as an extra 3 years for taking an extra toilet paper roll.

In 2016 in the Netherlands, they are actively shutting down prisons that have little to no prisoners instead of attempting to fill them with more criminals. That’s why prisons cannot be privatized, it’s not supply and demand, they’re made to run their course and close if they’re not in use anymore, not to be artificially filled.

While these type of prisons are phased out to only be active in 21 states, it’s still an appalling truth that we have no interest in these prisoners ever returning. A felon for weed trafficking will never work again in anything but the lowest paying positions because in the real world no one asks the story, simply looks at the mark on a paper.

Compare this to Danish Prisons, unlike American prisons which focus on punishment, they instead go out of there way to support prisoner independence. Staff and officers eat their meals with prisoners. They let the prisoners make their own food. There are no barbed wire fences. No walls. No gun towers. No moat or dogs ready to tear a man apart. “Better to let a prisoner escape than take a staff member hostage.” These prisons allow the possibility to escape, this sense of freedom while still serving their sentence. Studies show that this actually hardly affects escape rates, raising 1.26 percent from the U.S average. It’s also shown to be a reduction in violence and suicides, with last year containing only 8 deaths in Denmark’s prisons, five from suicide. The U.S has 4,446. Most from suicide. Danish Prisons expect problems with smuggling or drug trafficking, but they see no use in putting more harsh restrictions in place. If for example, a prisoner were to stab a cellmate while making lunches with a knife, the officers would bolt all knives to the walls on cables to allow the freedom while restricting reach, and after time when everything settles down, they’ll grant the freedoms back. The individual responsible is punished, but they don’t permanently restrict all of the prisoners for the actions of the few. They instead promote learning and in prison programs, such as in-house construction or production courses to not only build skills and revenue for the incarcerated, but its shown these programs pay for themselves in time with revenue the Prison gains from selling produced products. 

In 2016 in the Netherlands, they are actively shutting down prisons that have little to no prisoners instead of attempting to fill them with more criminals. That’s why prisons cannot be privatized, it’s not supply and demand, they’re made to run their course and close if they’re not in use anymore, not to be artificially filled.

The New York Times made a detailed account of a recent American Prisons use of prisoners as nurses and medical staff for their fellow inmates. The old. The sick. The injured. The dying. It contains stories of many inmates. Interviews. The growth these people have experienced being trusted with this program.  

We haven’t even dived into the perceived power dynamics in prisons. In 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment started and concluded. While there was a multitude of things wrong with the science, it was essentially testing if people from society placed into prisoner and guard roles will begin to act as such in an environment similar to a prison. Over time, ‘guards’ became more authoritarian, stripping away belongings and treating the ‘inmates’ like animals; but as they cracked down more, the more rebellious the inmates became as they began to lose their sense of identity and civility.

While, yes, as stated before the scientific aspects of this experiment are shaky at best, this is some of the best insight into power dynamics. The prison system as we know it is set up to dehumanize criminals and punish them, rather than rehabilitate. It’s shown with just some college kids partaking in a study.

America needs to change its system. You could discuss for ages and give countless examples of the problems with the punish, non-reform policies and the prison system in general from Nixon’s racially targeted laws to unfair drug charges punishing those with an addictive disease harshly. Or even about the stigma against those that have made a mistake and done wrong, and how we push them into lives, they want to escape or rebel and do horrible things because of their environment makes them that way.

The system here in the United States, as we know it, make it nearly impossible for a person who’s made mistakes in the past to reform and gain life experience from their mistakes, and apply it for good. Hopefully, there’ll be some sort of change.