As history has progressed, mankind has had to develop factors that contributed specifically to the functionality of their society. One of the most prominent factors has been the addition of laws which set boundaries for the civilization as a whole. However, when laws are broken there must be some reinforcement that emphasizes the authority of these rules. In the American society, the correctional system is the basis in which individuals are supposed to be “enrolled” in, thus helping them reform their ways and become better contributors to humanity.
However, in this day and age, the American correctional system has become privatized to relieve the pressure on citizen tax dollars. Due to this, the correctional system has been reduced to punishment, isolation and almost indentured servitude instead of the reformation that was originally intended. In addition, when individuals are sent to prison they are left with the reduced ability to be able to receive a legal job. This matter has left a significant amount of minorities, immigrants and otherwise socially handicapped people unemployed, on welfare, and usually ending right back into prison. As a descendant of immigrants and a minority whose lived in areas with a high population of former inmates, this subject is daunting especially to myself. When I consider all of the good people that made mistakes, were forced into situations based on their circumstances or people who were just trying to survive, I can’t imagine how their experiences in prison have not only tainted their perspective on humanity but have also tainted their futures. When a portion of our population has been subjected to this dehumanizing treatment and left with limited options in their progression the question now becomes, to what extent does our present correctional system affect a person’s ability to successfully function in society?
For the sake of this examination, the definition of success will be limited to “maintaining the necessary income to live above the poverty line, while remaining in good legal standing, as well as having the opportunity to advance in life”. While this definition may seem simplistic, difficulties meeting this goal can arise for even the most educated and able individuals. Thus when persons of a social status that are already less likely to successfully go through the system, their results are drastically different. In all actuality, the American correctional system inhibits the progression of an individual’s functionality in society due to the fact that not only is the person in question now limited in their possible economic advance but also in their social standing and experiences. In order to examine the validity of my thesis, I will analyze statistics provided by the American government in regards to the demographics of those who have been previously incarcerated. In addition to this, I will break down personal accounts from people who have been in prison as well as those who haven’t to compare the social experiences of both groups. By doing this I will be able to correlate the evidence that our government has gathered to the events that people have encountered.
In order to discuss how the prison system has deviated from its original intentions, it is imperative that I give background on the origins of said system. Before the 18th century there wasn’t a well-defined prison system, instead, people who were accused of committing crimes would be held in crude dungeons and held in torturous restraints. However, these areas weren’t for long-term holding, these caverns were set aside for temporary holding until the accused would be either acquitted of their crime or found guilty. During the colonial times in America, a guilty verdict could be punished by ranges of castigation. From public humiliation to branding, to lashings and hangings. However, it was very rare for a person to be held as a form of punishment. Nevertheless, as time progressed these methods of penalization became seen as barbaric and in the 1800’s a new form of criminal “reformation” was introduced. A grander reflection of our implementation of solitary confinement, the prisoners of the 1800’s were sent to factories where they silently reflected on their sins. Communication with other prisoners was strictly forbidden and being caught in the action would result in additional punishment. This method of rehabilitation was favored because not only was it responsible for the breakdown of an individual’s spirit, it would give way to mental illnesses that incapacitated the criminal. Furthermore, inmates were subject to strenuous labor without pay or concern for their safety. During this time, obedience and hard work were the markers of criminal rehabilitation although during this time reformation of the prison system had begun in Pennsylvania which would influence the impending 1900’s.
Two of the major pioneers in the improvement of the correctional system during this time were Dorothea Dix and Enoch C. Wines. Dorothea Dix strove for the refinement of the way mentally ill people were treated in prison. This eventually led to the separation of the mentally ill into asylums where they could be educated and receive treatment. Enoch Wines focused on the betterment of the correctional system for all; Wine’s conclusion that the current prison methods were actually severely ineffective led to the implementation of new policies regarding sanitary conditions, women’s participation and education in prison. As the progressive era emerged these two reformers were given greater consideration and eventually the 1900’s became the era of prison restoration. Progressives shifted their focus from hard punishment and social isolation to psychological methods of rehabilitation. During this time prisoners were sentenced to indefinite sentences and were released when they could prove that had been purged of the criminal tendencies. This method would lead to our contemporary version of probation and parole. With this major revolution, the correctional system was set to rehabilitate its inmates and lead to the betterment of society’s “deviants”.
However, during the late 20th century American encountered a “prison boom”, a massive increase in the prison population (Porter, Lauren). This explosion in the number of people under the guide of the correctional system was due to the expansion of the American law enforcement agencies. Prison sentences for minor crimes were being increased and new laws were instituted leading to an increase of things considered illegal. Eventually, the state budgets allocated to prison growth were drained and politicians were floundering for a way to make good on their promises to crack down on crime. In order to supplement this growing population, the US prison system began to privatize their jails to exclusive third-parties. The first third-party company to profitize the prison system was the Corrections Corporation of America. This method of prison expansion has been a major source of controversy due to the fact that these corporations run at least 10% of America’s prison for profit (Pauly, Madison). In essence, the issue lies with the fact that when a company is running for profit, the end goal is money, whereas the end goal of the correctional system should be correction of society’s deviants. In all actuality, these groups aren’t focused on educating or reforming our criminals, instead, they stand to gain monetary awards when the prison population is increased.
Now with a foundation established on the previous ineffectiveness of the correctional system and a brief summary on the history of America’s most controversial prison system, I can examine the effects our contemporary system has on the individuals within it. Now the validity of my conclusion is based on my ability to prove that the correctional system hinders two factors that contribute to an individual’s ability to succeed in society: the economic and social advancement of an individual. The economic aspects that contribute to a person success in America include employment and financial stability. The social factors that contribute to a person’s success include location and education. In order to defend my thesis, I will argue that our current correctional system 1) causes former inmates to lose job opportunities, 2)lowers the average income of former inmates, 3)contributes to the likelihood of former prisoners staying in a bad environment, and 4) lowers the chances of a former prisoner being educated.
To begin with, I’d like to review the statistical data on employment after prison. As of 2008, the percent of former inmates that was unable to meet income through employment was 70% (Vischer, Christy), the methods of income varied over means such as governmental assistance, assistance from friends and family as well as informal work coming in at the top 3.
As the prison population grew and political tension in America rose during the election of Obama, the number of post-inmates unemployed increased to 75% in 2013, after Obama’s re-election (Gramlich, John). As stated by a director of Columbia Law School’s department of Prisoners and Families clinic, “You can almost look at incarceration as a contagious disease,” Genty said. “Once somebody has that taint, they are just looked at differently. It’s not even at the rational level.” This bias can be found in various media, including news outlets, and it is only worsening the stigmas associated with former inmates. For instance, on a popular show named “Everybody Hates Chris” one character is often shown to be stealing and eventually being detained and sent to jail. Even though this character has been previously incarcerated, he maintains his socially deviant behavior, which induces the thought that he isn’t capable of rehabilitation. In other instances, such as on “Boyz n the Hood”, former convicts are stereotyped as being violent, stubborn and overall malicious. Despite 59% of convictions being nonviolent, this image of former inmates is portrayed in pop culture and employers fear ‘dangerous felons’ ruining their business reputations (Neyfakh, Leon). Despite most media being fictional, many people are conditioned to understand society- and specific factions- by what they see on television.
In this case, employers see that this individual has repeatedly gone through the correctional system and yet continues their crimes, which makes an employer not want to hire them. In reality, news outlets also perpetrate these thoughts. When someone is suspected of committing a crime one of the first things the media will examine is their criminal history. To employers this seems correlative, a former inmate or convict is suspected of committing another wrongdoing, thus they will continue to commit more crimes (Vega, Tanzana). A former inmate even says that “[he felt] his job applications were going into a “black hole.” This is due to the fact that more in today’s society, jobs are beginning to evaluate the criminal history of prospective employees. In more cases than some, employers aren’t even looking at what the crime was, instead, simply having a conviction makes you a less likely candidate.
When defining success, I used the poverty line as a marker of indication. To be precise in my analysis, the poverty line- as determined by the Federal Government- is $12,060 for an individual (healthcare.gov). It can be assumed based on the analysis of post-incarceration employment rates that former prisoners have a lower average income. A mean decrease of 11% was found between the annual income of post-incarcerated individuals as opposed to their income before incarceration (Freudenberg, Nicholas). However, many other circumstances influence the low income of former inmates. To begin with, many convicts are released early but have to pay monthly fees for parole or probation. On the average, convicts are paying $30-$80 a month, not including court fees or the costs of drug testing and driving for parole check-ups (Schou, Solvej). When individuals aren’t able to pay their parole costs, they are subject to several different consequences. The most frequent “alternatives” are community service and revocation of license until payment can be made. Yet, since the majority of inmates were in poverty before they were convicted, it is likely they will be even more impoverished and lack the resources, such as a car or work, to meet their alternatives.
In addition, like our current correctional facility, probation is also being privatized. Due to this privatization, the focus becomes less on rehabilitation and more on increasing revenue. Revenue that is generated by the recidivism, the relapse of committing crimes, of former inmates. However, this is simply the surface of how probation plays a role in lowering the income of convicts. It is human nature to become concerned with the power and control that one possesses over the environment and in the relationship between probation officer and parolee, the results aren’t exclusive. On an episode of Law and Order: SVU, the interactions between several probation officers and their parolees are dramatized. Probation officers are seen being threatening, aggressive and extorting money from former convicts with threats of falsifying parole violations. However, in real life, cases of probational system corruption are beginning to crop up more frequently. Especially in well-populated cities, where criminal activities occur more, probational misconduct is rampant and has severe consequences for convicts trying to make a new life for themselves. For instance, in the city of Nashville, 2015 was the year many parolees lost their cars, gave up their disability checks, or even foreclosed on their homes(Schou, Solvej). These individuals found themselves being threatened with excessive jail time or increased probation fees if they couldn’t pay their probation officer. In conducting an interview with an individual recently released from prison, Mark* shared his concerns of the correctional system in regards to probation. “Paying probation fees may seem like small costs for your freedom but I have a kid. Providing for a baby and yourself, the pressure is high, man. I’ve thought of selling dope a thousand times since I’ve been out. If I can’t pay probation, I’m back in jail anyway.” (personal communication, 2017). This was one of the most emotional accounts, on my behalf, that I received because Mark is only 19. To consider the fact that someone so young is already entrapped in the vicious cycle of crime is daunting. The system of probation is supposed to be a transition between prison and society, yet, it seems to be an increasingly cyclical route of recidivism and less income.
“Section 8 isn’t available to anyone who has a criminal record. Whether or not you serve jail time, you are immediately evicted from your apartment and there aren’t many other places you can go,” said an individual who had her housing assistance revoked. The options left are expensive and require extensive application fees and security deposits. Thus, even if the individual was able to maintain their finances, money would be spent primarily on housing. Many convicts will then find themselves regressing into criminal acts due to lack of support from their community. Due to the lack of community resources, these areas run rampant with criminals and, in the underground world, there is always room for another drug dealer or gang member. Thus, when inmates are released there is an immediate pressure to recede into their old lives, in addition to defensive measures, but also in order to provide for themselves.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. – Nelson Mandela.
This quote has increased in validity since the speaker first said it. As the United States continues to grow and innovate, education becomes more and more a separation between poverty and stability, success and failure. Many inmates, depending on the severity of their crime, have access to a high school education within prison walls. However, education isn’t limited to the simplicity of a high school diploma. Instead many employers look towards college degrees as a symbol of reputability and intelligence. Yet, a very few have access to degree-granting courses and those that do are at risk of losing them due to the high cost of these programs. This is despite the fact that by offering college courses, some correctional facilities have seen their recidivism rate drop by 16% (Westervilt, Eric). Inmates have been determined as being 42% more likely not to recede back to prison. Withholding economical reasons, a college education benefits society as a whole by increasing the rehabilitation factor of prison. Unfortunately, many prisons don’t offer these initiatives and instead, post-prison educational pursuits are harder due to various factors. The most significant reason is that former convicts lack access to basic educational programs. In a growing society of immigration, most urban cities provide little to no formal language assistance. In addition, many convicts simply aren’t afforded the time as they are required to see probation officers frequently as well as trying to actually provide for themselves.
As inmates are released from our correctional facility they are promptly thrust back into an environment that encourages their misconduct. Areas that have high incarceration rates hosts large ghettos that breed malicious intent. For instance, the Miami Dade prison population is the 8th largest in the country with its gang population being the 7th largest in America (Munzenrieder, Kyle.). Even though an inmate may have rehabilitated, crime affiliation follows and this individual may become associated with their criminal history. This can lead to gang members, drug dealers or other offenders preemptively striking in order to maintain criminal hierarchies. In many cases, previous inmates will regress into their criminal activities in order to have protection. Rather than continuing the rehabilitation process, former inmates are cornered into a fight or flight response without the ability to escape. Moreover, in many cases, those who have been previously incarcerated also have family and friends that take part in illegal activities. “I had to give up many of the boys I’ve been down with forever. I just knew that they were going to bring me back to a place I couldn’t be in.” Mark stated. Losing these connections can leave former inmates vulnerable and without the support system they’ve had for years. In addition to the retaliation from other offenders, released inmates have to worry about racial and criminal profiling. Due to over 60% of the prison population being minorities, most noticeably Blacks and Hispanics, a level of racial profiling is obvious (Hagler, Jamal). However, racially profiling released inmates leads to police officers checking criminal databases, in turn, increasing harassment. Being associated with a criminal record gives police an excuse to pursue individuals simply for having a record. In areas with heavy crime, law enforcement is more present and more likely to assume criminal records of the inhabitants. Moreover, when considering their low budgets, these heavily populated cities also lack the necessary resources to integrate former convicts. Coupled with the lack of employment, many of these offenders will take to criminal activities in order to maintain homes and child care.
In the case of economic endeavours and advancement opportunities, post-secondary education is on the brink of becoming a requirement. Statistics show that those who have a college degree are more than 14% likely to have a job that is career oriented vs a job to “simply get by”(pewsocialtrends.org). Having a college degree puts a former inmate at an advantage against the 66% of America that has no degree, increasing their chances of retaining a career (pewsocialtrends.org). Thus, without education, the majority of former inmates would never have the opportunity to advance. In addition, higher education also contributes to disparities in income between those have had their high school diploma and those who have a college degree. The median annual income difference between a high school graduate and a degree holder is $17,500( pewsocialtrends.org). When comparing this to the previous generations median annual income difference of $15,780, there is a gap of $1,720. This contributes to fact that education has not only grown more essential in order to maintain a career but also to remain above the poverty level in our current economy. When considering the likely chances of a former inmate having a lower income, education becomes a necessary tool to prevent recidivism and increase a former inmates chance of success.
As racial and economic divisions deepen, prison has become a place of punishment doubling as an income generator for private companies. The original purpose of reformation has been deformed into simply sheltering what society refuses to fix. Despite the overwhelming evidence of inefficiency, politicians, private companies and upper-class individuals believe that the correctional system provides opportunities for inmates that they would have never otherwise receive. Granted that many inmates are released gaining a high school diploma in the process, their costs from prisons such as probation and court fees, is likely to offset the advantage of a diploma. In addition, many supporters of our current correctional system emphasize the fact that prison shouldn’t be a reward but instead a consequence. However, this prompts the question of to what extent is prison a negative consequence? In many cases, inmates arrive in jail or prison for non-violent offences and yet when they are released, their crimes are usually more heinous and weigh more on society. In effect, society is punished for its failure to correctly reform the prisoner.
However, the most significant claim of those who support our correctional system is that society is no longer forced to deal with those who have deviated from our norms. Yet, this line of thinking results in a chain of animosity, poverty and increased segregation. As families are broken and children grow in poverty, our youth will see crime as an outlet for rebellion or simply a means of getting by. This becomes a vicious cycle, rarely broken and demonstrated mostly by the minorities in our prisons thus increasing stigmatisms associated with various races. In the end, our correctional system has been outdated for decades and currently is undermining efforts of humanitarians and those who seek to release others from poverty. By reforming the issues analysed in my essay, with a focus on education, our correctional system would begin to change for the better.
Despite including what would be most important in answering my question, I realised that there were several directions I could have taken in the meaning of function. My analysis focused more on economic success rather than mental growth which would also affect an individual’s ability to succeed in life. Understanding the extent of influence prison has on the psychological state on an inmate would allow me to determine if many of the results of prison were from fractured mental states or from reasons entailed in my essay. However, based on my analysis of data and my evaluation of interviews with former inmates, prison has a high negative association with inhibiting the success of those previously incarcerated.
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