The inhumane treatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad shocked and puzzled Americans. How could soldiers dedicated to the spread of democracy, with its protection of basic human rights, have behaved in such a brutal way? Unfortunately, few Americans saw Abu Ghraib as an opportunity to look critically at our own prison system. Both systems rely on the same concept: absolute power in the hands of the imprisoning authority. As Lord Acton reminds us, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Our prison system has always been a closed institution, and that very secrecy has intrigued visitors to our country. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited this country in 1831, he planned to study the penal system, realizing that a country’s character can best be gauged by the way it treats its outcasts. Not quite two centuries later, Bernard-Henri Lévy, at the request of the Atlantic Monthly, retraced Tocqueville’s steps and found that Americans consider prisoners an underclass incapable of fitting into acceptable social patterns; they must be isolated like lepers. “The concern, the obsession, and thus probably everything at issue here involves reassurance that at every instant the separation has been successfully carried out and the two worlds (prisoners vs. society) have become isolated,” said Lévy in Atlantic’s issue of June 2005.
Isolating prisoners leaves them at the mercy of the courts and a criminal justice system that does little to move them toward returning to society in a positive manner. Abuse of power occurs when the public has no idea or little interest in what is happening behind prison bars.
To correct abuses in the system, we must first challenge the stereotype that all prisoners are hardened criminals, to be “put away”—banished from society—instead of human beings who have made mistakes and are paying the price. The United States incarcerates a disproportionately large number of the poor and the uneducated. Prisoners tend to be members of ethnic groups, especially black and Hispanic. In fact, fully two-thirds of those behind bars are members of racial and ethnic minorities. According to the nonprofit organization The Sentencing Project, black males born today have a one in three chance of going to prison during their lifetime—as compared to a one in 17 chance for white males. The mentally disturbed, lacking support in the community, gravitate toward the prison system, where they will find little help.
In the last 10 years the U.S. jail and prison population has risen sharply and is now over two million. The increase stemmed mainly from a get-tough policy on drugs. Drug offenders account for a fifth of all state prisoners and 60 percent of all federal prisoners. Most have no record of violent offenses. Other expanding groups include children who enter the system when judges try them as adults. Imprisoned teenagers sent to adult facilities are more likely than others to be gang-raped or otherwise sexually abused. And yet tough-on-crime laws have increasingly allowed the transfer of juveniles to adult court at much younger ages than previously. Adult sentences imposed on children, the Sentencing Project observes, are unduly severe. More women are also entering the system, leaving their children with a family member or surrendering them as wards of the state, thus weakening the family structure of the imprisoned. Though the system already houses a number of military veterans, that number is likely to jump as veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan only to receive scant help in finding jobs and reentering society.
In spite of this grim picture of a nation that imprisons its misfits and hides them from view, the stereotypes continue. The few leaders who call for constructive change in the system are unheard. In Michigan, for example, the legislature has tried since 2001 to reduce prison visits by 75 percent as a way to control drug usage. Opponents of the policy correctly argue that loss of contact with families will destroy bonds with spouses and children. Studies show that maintaining such bonds helps reduce recidivism. Yet the attempt to curtail prison visits continues.
Many prisoners are violent and dangerous and need incarceration. Others are not; they made mistakes, took a wrong turn and are now asking for a chance to redeem themselves. Their behavior while in prison indicates that they can be rehabilitated, especially where possibilities for education, drug treatment and work opportunities exist. In Michigan, level 1 prisoners are permitted to work in the community. They clean drains and river banks, cut down trees, pick up trash and perform many other low-paying but useful jobs. Within the facility, they are engaged in a variety of industries, particularly making license plates. Other industries include woodworking, computer operations, making garments, mattresses and vinyl products. At the Gus Harrison facility, veterans raise money for hospitalized veterans or for their widows. Some prisoners start gardens, providing food for the prison and for food banks in the community. Still others raise plants in the greenhouse and donate them to nursing homes and community fundraisers. The good that prisoners do, however, can be swept away after one garish story about a prison outbreak or when a parolee’s violent behavior airs in the media.
If we are ever to construct a more just and humane prison system, we must move beyond negative attitudes toward a class of people we barely know and hear about only when there is bad news to report. We need to ask questions about the current system. What are its good and bad aspects? How can we reduce our prison population while still incarcerating those who represent a real threat to society? And finally, how can we change attitudes so that we no longer look on all prisoners as cut from the same cloth?
The need for change is great. We could begin by working to change the mandatory-minimum drug laws that keep low-level drug offenders incarcerated for decades, urging lawmakers to sentence them to treatment rather than to prison. Similarly, the 1986 welfare law added further, counterproductive punishments that have had a particularly harsh effect on drug offenders, especially women who are mothers, barring them for life from receiving food stamps and from residing in public housing. Such burdens promote family breakup and increase recidivism rates. Other needed changes include the increased use of drug courts and the elimination of racial profiling in drug sentences. The goal of criminal justice should not be simply to punish, but to prepare prisoners for re-entry into the communities to which they will eventually return.
Examples of Abuse of Power
• People are executed for crimes they did not commit. While continuing to maintain his innocence, Robert Cantu of San Antonio was executed for a fatal shooting in 1993. Years later, his codefendant David Garza and an eyewitness, Juan Moreno, cleared Cantu of the crime.
•Accused persons later found to be innocent receive long prison terms. In Coldwater, Mich., Terry Bauder spent 12 years in prison for criminal sexual conduct before his accuser recanted her testimony.
• Life in prison is a dangerous and humiliating experience. One of the prisoners in a class I teach at Michigan’s Gus Harrison Correctional facility in Adrian, Mich., has been persecuted by other prisoners, who learned from an officer that the prisoner is a convicted sexual offender. The prisoner has little hope of bringing the offending officer to justice. An all-powerful and secretive prison system will make sure that no one on the outside learns about the injustice.