Crime and Punishment


I was thinking about the prison system the other day.

We’ve been working our way through season 4 of Orange Is The New Black, which brings up a lot of issues about overcrowding and the treatment of prisoners and the privatization of the corrections system. These are all important discussions that need to be have and that no one wants to talk about. If prison conditions are bad, then, well, that’s prison; it’s not supposed to be nice. Right? It’s punishment.

I sometimes play a game with myself called If I Ran The Prison System. It goes something like this: if I ran the prison system, how would I run it differently from the current professionals? (As if I knew any better. I don’t, but it is something that I try to think about. )

“Well,” I think to myself. “I’d make sure that the conditions were adequate: Clean. Secure. Healthy food. Green space, maybe. Educational programs. A transition training program at the end to help inmates get back on their feet.”

Sounds nice. Not like prison at all, maybe. And expensive- who pays for all this? (In my game, I’m fabulously wealthy, so I pay for it myself. I’m like the Andrew Carnegie of the prison system).

And then I ask the question that sends the game into a spiral: Is it worth it?

Take food, for instance: Is it worth it to pay for healthy food for prisoners? Is it worth paying for produce when canned vegetables are just as readily available, cheaper, and have a longer shelf life? Besides, if they eat too well in prison, why would they ever want to leave, right? It’s supposed to be punishment, not a restaurant. It’s prison. It’s not supposed to be nice. Isn’t the point of prison to be punishment? How can you punish someone if you treat them well?

Isn’t taking away someone’s freedom enough?


In the course of this mental game, I realized two things: first of all, our cultural attitude towards prison has been slowly evolving from a mentality of “Corrections” in which prisoners were expected to resume civilian life after “paying their debt to society” to a mentality of “Punishment” in which prisoners are Bad People who are expected to return to prison again and again because of their inherent badness. One of these attitudes assumes that an individual is inherently valuable (maybe not good, but worthy) as a human being, but has made an error, and assumes that it is possible for that individual to learn how to change. The other attitude assumes that an individual is inherently bad as a human being, no matter their circumstances, and that their crime was an inevitable extension of their inherent flaw which can be punished, but never changed. Once a felon, always a felon.

That’s a pretty hard line to take against a person. It makes it much easier to dehumanize a prisoner- to say that they don’t deserve a basic standard of living, because they are being punished. And it’s a self fulfilling prophecy: once a felon always a felon- it’s a question on all the job and housing applications I’ve been filling out lately. What if I had to check “yes”? How many jobs and apartments would dismiss me out of hand until I found myself in the worst job and the worst apartment where people are willing to look the other way about my past? And if they look the other way about my past, what other activities do they look the other way from? And how long would I last in the “legitimate world” living and working at the bottom of the heap before I began to believe that it was all I deserved? If I didn’t believe it already? I can’t imagine that it would be long before I found myself back inside the system.

The second thing I realized, is that the system, increasingly, is feeding itself, like a snake eating it’s own tail. In a for-profit system, prisoners are commodities: valuable workers who require no minimum wages and no special rights. They have no vote. They get no say. They come back eventually- not all of them, but enough to keep the beds full.

I can’t help but wonder what this says about us as Americans. Nothing good, I daresay. How did we lose our sense of civic humanity? When did we decide that all humans are not created equal after all? That some of us are Good and some of us are Bad and that only Good people have value? Do we truly believe that we are not just as capable of crime as anyone else? “There but for the grace of god, go I” and all that? Do we really believe that guilt must follow us for the rest of our lives? Do we believe that we can’t be redeemed? What a sorry world to live in.


~ by Gwydhar Gebien on June 29, 2016.

One Response to “Crime and Punishment”

  1. The system does feed itself.

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