Why our criminal justice system imprisons us all
Catholic doctrine prioritizes mercy, compassion, and redemption. But these words are becoming more difficult to apply to America’s criminal-justice system.
Note to readers: This feature was originally published in our June 1998 issue. While some of the statistics may be out of date, it is alarming how much of the story still holds true today.
To reach the Sheridan Correctional Center, a visitor passes along 30 miles or so of flat, somber Illinois farmland, brown and recently tilled in the early spring, ready for planting. The long and empty acres of farm fields are broken occasionally by Victorian farmhouses or aging grain silos until a small hill rise elevates what at first looks like another silo but turns out to be a prison watchtower.
Sheridan is one of the older facilities in the Illinois system. First constructed in 1941, it began its institutional life as a juvenile facility before converting to an adult population in 1973. Since then it has experienced two major construction expansions to accommodate Illinois’ exploding inmate population in the 1980s and 1990s. By all accounts Sheridan is typical of Illinois’ other medium-security prisons—1,500 men with an average age of about 29 trying to do their time as best they can. Only four of the state’s 26 adult institutions qualify as maximum security, and the state has so far opened only one so-called “super-max” facility.
Clark Wade is the assistant warden in charge of programming at Sheridan. He runs through a litany of the facility’s many offerings: anger counseling, college-credit or GED classes, English as a second language, upholstery training, carpentry. Wade conducts an exhaustive tour of his prison, stopping by virtually every classroom on the compound, the carpentry shop, the eyeglass repair room, Sheridan’s well-equipped computer lab, a gym full of young men playing basketball and lifting weights. “We try to keep the prisoners engaged in something constructive,” he says, smiling modestly but clearly proud of the many efforts that are made at the facility to help the men pass their time on the inside and prepare for life on the outside.
Most people raised on “escape from Alcatraz” visions of the American penal system may find the atmosphere and appearance of this medium-security prison difficult to place. It’s hard to picture the guards who patrol among the prisoners as the sadistic “bulls” of prison lore. The unarmed guards are so obviously outnumbered by the often much younger inmates that it’s clear brute force alone could never function as a control mechanism at Sheridan. What keeps these men in line is the knowledge that a place like Sheridan offers them perhaps their last and best chance to turn their lives around and, frankly, that there are other and much less pleasant alternatives within the Illinois system where they could end up.
“Sheridan is a good camp,” one inmate says, taking a breather from his cleanup duties in one residence’s day room. “They got things under control here. Some of them other places,” he says, shaking his head before counting through a list of other medium- and maximum-security prisons in the Illinois system. “You got guys doing 90 years or two or three life sentences or natural life. Man, they just don’t care what happens.”
Sheridan is a sparkly clean facility. Even the other buildings within the prison seem well maintained. The compound itself resembles nothing more intimidating than your average neatly kept college dorm quadrangle; the lawns surrounding the residences are green and trim, the walkways spotless, the staff courteous. The “grounds beautification program” is apparently progressing well.
Although men double up in cells that were meant for single occupancy and that were claustrophobia-inducing even then, the prison’s day rooms are clean, if sterile. The only thing that gives Sheridan away as more than an overly regimented dormitory are the watchtowers that corner the grounds and the double line of razor-topped fencing that surrounds the facility.
Perhaps the strangest thing about visiting a prison is ultimately the uneventfulness of the experience. Here are a group of mostly young men playing intramural basketball in the gym; another group weight lifting; others lining up for a march to the cafeteria or back to their cells. No, there is nothing obviously brutal or demeaning—aside from the indignities inherent to a life of confinement and restriction—about a place like Sheridan.
But within an inmate population convicted of mostly low-level drug offenses or of nonviolent crimes most Americans would dismiss as petty, the overriding question about Sheridan is not the way the men inside are treated while they’re there but why most of these men have to be “inside” in the first place.
The men, all dressed in prison denim, laugh and joke with each other, even with the guards. It’s hard to file these men away as the hardened criminals the nation seems intent on weeding out and disposing of. Yet many of these men are facing long prison sentences on charges that in the past would have merited a court supervision or remanding to drug or other rehabilitative treatment.
They are part of a new class of citizens, those people passed over by the nation’s booking economy, unserved by its education system, imprisoned by drug addictions, mental illness, or homelessness. They are a small part of America’s exploding inmate population, hidden away like many others in rural communities like Sheridan all across the nation.
The United States is keeping some decidedly mixed company of late. While many people are aware that the U.S. alone among major Western industrial powers continues the practice of capital punishment, many folks would perhaps be surprised to discover that the U.S. maintains the world’s largest prison population. Its only serious competitor for the global title in incarceration rates is one-time political rival Russia.
Russia, with a rate of 690 incarcerations per 100,000 citizens (1996 figures) beats the U.S.’s 615 per 100,000. But the U.S. total of 1.7 million incarcerated easily surpasses Russia’s 1.1 million. In 1972, there were only 250,000 people in America’s prisons and jails, but with the incarcerated population annually growing 7.8 percent on average (since 1985), Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project in Washington expects the U.S. prison populations to exceed 2 million by the year 2000.
That’s no mean feat. Achieving it took 25 years of public-policy changes—the elimination of judicial and prosecutorial discretion with mandatory minimum-sentencing standards, the elimination of “good time” by truth-in-sentencing-laws, the annexation of an offender’s future with “three strikes, you’re out” policies, and increasingly lengthy terms for even nonviolent crimes.
The rate of incarceration in the U.S. is 6 to 10 times higher than that of other Western powers. Illinois, with a total population of 11.4 million, maintains a state prison and jail population of well over 50,000; that’s a larger incarcerated population than in all of Japan (46,622), a nation of 126 million people. In the past 10 years alone, America’s prison population has doubled. According to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1995 5.5 million Americans were in jail or prison, on parole or probation, or otherwise in transit through the criminal-justice system.
Getting tough on crime
In Catholic doctrine the words mercy, compassion, and redemption often are pulled into service when describing a higher duty to forgiveness and healing that Christians are called to accept.
These are words that are becoming progressively more difficult to apply to America’s modern criminal-justice system. As the prison population continues its costly growth, debate on the issue of incarceration seems to revolve around not whether or not to incarcerate offenders but just how hard to throw the book at them. It’s become difficult to even talk about the rights and treatment of criminal offenders in contemporary America. To raise such an issue in public discourse is to risk the ire of many of the nation’s crime victims—or at least those who speak for them. Critics of the existing system are assailed as bleeding hearts, naïfs, or the apparently worst of contemporary political pejoratives, people “soft on crime.”
But with so many Americans being sent into prison and for so long, the difficult questions of how to deal with these men and women and what their treatment says about American society remains. The rhetorical challenge of “what about the victims?” is often thrown up as if that plaintive query helped resolve the dilemma (or as if the system already provided victims—and many criminal offenders—with the opportunities for restitution and healing that they seek). But it does not, nor is it intended to: It is too often merely meant to lock down debate on the matter as if the pain and suffering of the victims provide justification enough for any treatment offenders receive and all the human potential that is thrown away in prisons when all offenders become perceived as irredeemable.
Jerome Miller is the one-time commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services and the founder and executive director of the National Center of Institutions and Alternatives. “If you want to look at a society and see where it’s heading, see how it takes care of its captives,” he says.
“Until about 15 years ago the ideal or the theory was still there of some notion of rehabilitation or restoration [through the criminal-justice system],” Miller says. “That is no longer true. What you hear over and over is that the purpose of prisons is to punish. They’ve taken programs away, they’ve taken hope away, and now that attitude is seeping into the justice arena.”
Certainly no one is trying to excuse crime. Certainly some hideous and often incomprehensible acts are committed by people against other people, acts that require measures to ensure public safety and establish parameters of public behavior. But does accepting that reality absolve us of exploring further what prisons are for and how they can best be put to use? And with a likelihood of nearly 2 million fellow citizens put away by the turn of the century and billions of dollars of tax revenue at stake, is it not incumbent upon a rational society to review the ends and the means and determine if it has committed the right resources to the proper pursuits?
“I think what the pope said about the ‘culture of death’ in this country is very telling—he was not just talking about abortion,” says Miller. “All the issues that are of concern to Catholics—things like euthanasia or genetics—will surface first in our prison system in the way we treat our captives.” In efforts to brutalize or dehumanize its prisoners, Miller says, U.S. society itself only becomes more brutal and dehumanized in the end.
Miller’s perspective becomes more credible after a quick scan of some of the latest legislative “reforms” of the criminal-justice system that have made their way into newspaper headlines: In New York, legislators debate eliminating parole entirely (as 12 other states and the federal government have already done); in Mississippi, one legislator introduces a bill that would allow drug offenders to walk away from prison time if they volunteer to amputate a “member” of their body.
Proposals in other states call for the harvesting of the organs of executed prisoners—a practice that when conducted in China aroused the outrage of American and other Western human-rights advocates—and execution methods, like the guillotine, that would facilitate organ recovery. Missouri goes one further. Their legislators are debating a “life for a life” proposal that would allow death row inmates to reduce their sentences to life without parole if they “donate” a kidney or bone marrow. What was repulsive, unheard of, or merely bizarre in the past may be commonplace in the future of criminal justice.
Witness the construction of America’s new so-called super-max facilities, which employ the sensory deprivation and isolation tactics perfected by the KGB as the means of containing “problem inmates.”
Super-max inmates line in virtually complete isolation. They are subjected to frequent strip searches—despite their segregation from other inmates. They may remain locked down in “white-lighted” cells almost 24 hours a day—many are allowed only three hours each week of segregated yard time—without books, magazines, or television. Their only human contact for months may be the two guards who escort them outside for their individual yard time.
“You can say that they are not typical of conditions at other prisons,” says Miller, “but those places set the tone, they define the whole system. . . they’re kind of the big hammer to keep [inmates in minimum- and medium-security institutions] under control, but you have to wonder who thought them up,” says Miller. “They seem to have emerged from the darkest side of human consciousness. They’re sadistic and they’re not restorative. And they’re not meant to be. You wonder what it must do to the people who work in them,” Miller says, then adds after a moment: “You don’t have to treat people that way to get the control you need. The problem is we have so many thousands incarcerated now that they are forced to rely on these methods of pain and punishment. They really speak to the paucity of the other options.”
If you build it…
All over the country states are striving mightily to keep up with their burgeoning inmate populations. The construction boom in Illinois is typical of prison-building trends around the nation. Since 1978 the state has built 17 new facilities as its state prison population (not including its jail population) increased from 10,000 to 41,000; over the next few years it is planning as many as five more. In March, Illinois opened a “state of the art” super-maximum-security facility in down-state Tamms.
In 1978, the state spent $100 million to maintain its prisons; in 1999, Illinois will top $1 billion for the first time. Nationally, prison construction and maintenance has reached $100 billion per year.
“We’re going to have to build a new prison every year,” says Illinois Department of Corrections spokesperson Nic Howell. “If you’re going to put the bad guys away for a longer time, you’re going to have to build a new, secure facility for them. Truth in sentencing passed in 1995; now the bill is coming due.”
Under the new sentencing guidelines, most Illinois offenders have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, no matter how “good” their time. “Before 1995,” Howell explains, “you got a day off for a day of good time. When a judge sentenced you to 20 years, that meant 10.” But truth in sentencing is 0only part of the reason prison populations have been increasing in Illinois.
The war on drugs
“In ’87, they upped the penalty for drug possession and sales; the [growing prison] population has been driven off drug offenses,” Howell says. “And a lot of them have been women,” he adds, describing the exploding female population as the “latest spike in the grid.” In 1987, before tougher drug offender policies were in place in Illinois, inmates arrested on drug possession numbered less than 5 percent of the total population; today they make up 25 percent. “The most popular thing people are being sent to prison for now is drugs,” says Howell.
Sheridan’s Clark Wade estimates that perhaps as many as 70 percent of the men in Sheridan were convicted of drug possession offenses or crimes committed to support their drug habits. In fact, he seems especially proud of the prison’s drug rehabilitation program; it’s administered jointly with Chicago’s Gateway Foundation.
Nearly one third of Sheridan’s inmates are enrolled in the program or on its waiting list. These men live in a special segregated unit, a prison within the prison, cut off from contact with the regular population by an internal fence and razor-wire barrier. Wade explains the extra fencing and isolation emphasizes the distinctiveness of the men in the recovery program; the fact that it prevents them from opportunities to receive contraband from the general population is not coincidental.
Wade says it’s the kind of program you will find at any of Illinois’ medium-security facilities. According to Howell, the state spends $5 million each year on drug treatments for its inmates. “I question whether you want to send a person to prison to get drug treatment,” says Howell. “It costs us $16,700 a year [per inmate]; you can provide drug treatment on the street for a third of that.”
A heavy price tag
But, Howell allows, “Legislators don’t get elected or reelected because of those kinds of statements.” Howell hits on a contemporary political truism. While politicians talk frequently of how tough on crime they plan to be if elected, few mention how tough it’s going to be to pay for their rhetoric.
Incarceration “is not a cost-free option,” says Mar Mauer of the Sentencing Project. The U.S. spends nearly $40 billion each year just to house and feed incarcerated citizens—more than three times what the federal government spent on its much maligned welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Depending on the security level, a person behind bars in the U.S. can cost anywhere between an average of $20,000 (minimum security) to $75,000 (juvenile or maximum security) each year to lock up. “You could do an awful lot of drug treatment for $20,000,” Mauer says.
Every dime spent on the nations increasingly expensive prisons is a dime less for the education, drug treatment, family counseling and intervention, or the frequently ridiculed midnight basketball leagues—precisely those “soft’ programs with proven effectiveness at preventing crime. “The more we invest in prisons, the less money we have to invest in education and other prevention programs and the more we’ll need prisons in the future,” says Mauer. “It becomes a vicious cycle after a while.”
Yet, somehow the same community that is thrown into an uproar when more funding is requested for education remains comparatively impassive to the multibillion-dollar increases in prison spending over the past decade. “For $75,000 a year [the cost of incarcerating one juvenile in a secure facility],” Miller points out, “you could hire two full-time professionals to devote their entire work week to that juvenile.” Voters seem to prefer to spend the $75,000 on the prison bed.
Too much politics is at play in the apparently fruitful fields of criminal justice, observers like Mauer argue. Small towns agitating for the jobs that new prisons provide, prison construction companies, prison guard unions, and now even private prison corporations lobby hard at the state and federal level for harsher sentencing policies. The rhetorical hue and cry lingers over crime victims and public safety, but the political returns come in shades of prison green. Rare is the politician who would point out the enormous social costs of America’s campaign against crime. “You can’t lose by being tough on crime,” Mauer says. “In the short run, it’s been a very successful strategy for politicians.”
Proponents of this vast national experiment in criminal justice are quick to associate the nation’s declining crime rate with increasing incarceration rates. But some analysts of the criminal-justice system say the relationship is not as compelling as it might appear.
California, which maintain a “three strikes, you’re out,” policy (that is, a third felony conviction earns an offender a life sentence without parole), in 1996 experienced an 11 percent decline in crime. But New York, without a “three strikes” system, experienced a 21 percent decrease. And California’s three-strike system is not without its price. Notable lifetime sentences have included an offender sentenced for stealing a slice of pizza, who will now be warehoused at a cost of approximately $22,000 per year for the remainder of his natural life.
While locking up the nation’s criminal offenders for longer stretches of time certainly has some effect on crime rates, some analysts argue that the virtual extinction of violence related to the crack cocaine trade, an improving employment picture, the growing use of community policing, and other demographic changes perhaps better explain the drop in crime most American cities are currently enjoying.
“Some people will tell you that the drop in crime rates is related to increased incarceration rates,” Illinois’ Nic Howell says, “but I think you have to flip that [relationship]. If crime rates are going down, why are incarceration rates going up? They wouldn’t be going up because of a drop in crime. . . They’re going up because politicians want to say they’re tough on crime, so they pass legislation that puts more people away for a longer time.”
But don’t our “tough on crime” politicians have it right? Isn’t crime rampant in the U.S.? The answer may surprise folks who spend a lot of time watching crime-soaked nightly news reports or New York Undercover, but compared to other Western societies, which incarcerate at rates as much as 10 times below the U.S., American crime is no more than average. In fact, in most instances—assault or car theft for example—it is below the rates of other industrialized nations. America remains outstanding only in its rate of violent crime and murder; unpleasant truths perhaps related more to our gun-tolerant culture than an imagined, out-of-control crime population.
A new rite of passage
But even if longer jail time could alone be used to explain lower crime rates, Americans would still have to face up to the kind of society they are building through such punitive policies. In many communities, jail or prison time is becoming merely a rite of passage. “Most people I know don’t exactly welcome going to prison,” says Mauer, “but I think far too many communities where many numbers of people are in prison, it almost seems like an inevitable part of growing up.
“Cycling through the system—this is the role model [for the young people in such communities]. We can only begin to imagine the impact this has on a child’s aspirations or his worldview.” As for the long-term effect of such “role models,” Mauer won’t even speculate. “We’ve never had a situation before where so many people were in prison.”
For Jerome Miller of the National Center of Institutions and Alternatives, the attitudes and policies exhibited about or through the criminal justice system are inextricably interwoven with that nation’s racial problems. He sees the difference of the white majority, or worse, their vibrant support for increasingly punitive sentencing policies and program reductions inside of prisons as a reflection of the white majority’s perception of crime as a “black or brown” issue. Incarceration, he argues, is growing into an experience that more and more dramatically is being defined along racial and class lines.
While some may dismiss his concerns as a liberal anxiety attack, it’s hard to argue with the statistics. In Virginia, where African Americans comprise 24 percent of the population, 85 percent of the children and teens in the juvenile detention are African American. In 1994, 51 percent of state and federal prisoners were African American; 15 percent were Hispanic, yet white ex-offenders make up, at over 60 percent, the largest block of people on parole or probation.
In those communities where violent crime actually is a part of a common reality—but where somehow the tough-on-crime rhetoric of congressional candidates has meant little in terms of actually improved public safety—the way on crime seems more a campaign of community isolation and nullification. In African American and Hispanic communities, the nation’s mandatory-minimum “truth in sentencing,” or eliminated-parole criminal-justice policies are taking the greatest toll. One in three African American men between the ages of 20 and 29 currently participate in some level of criminal-justice supervision—from outright incarceration to work release, parole, or probation.
The psychological impact of that level of criminalization is hard to calculate, but at least it is clearly contributing to the evolution of a permanent outsider perspective among members of African American and Hispanic communities, a belief that the “system” is out to “get” them, a resistance to participate in civic life, and a hostility to representative of the larger society around these communities, whether they be police officers, firefighters, or social workers. Almost 30 percent of adult African American men now anticipate spending some part of their lives incarcerated. “If we dealt with suburban communities the same way,” said Miller, “we’d criminalize them as well.”
This is not to suggest that crimes are not being committed or charges trumped up against innocent people, only that in certain communities offenses are being pursued that in other communities would not be pursued. In other words, specific communities are being criminalized.
Plainly speaking, offenses that are arguably prosecutable are often committed by members of America’s majority community, European ethnic whites. But what often happens in those communities is that the criminalization of the offender never occurs: lawyers are hired, mediation ensues, restitution is offered and accepted—cases are adjudicated before incarceration becomes inevitable. But in communities that already are arguably disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, without legal resources and economic and familial support networks, and perhaps intimidated by or ignorant of the ins and outs of the criminal-justice system, the punitive nature of the current system is having a geometrically more ferocious impact.
From the street-level perspective of a low-income community in this sense, the war on crime resembles more a way on its youth.
And because so much of the current criminal-justice system runs on punitive-automatic, America’s mainstream society does not get to hear the stories of these young men and women from minority communities.
Their narratives are lost, Miller says, even as they become increasingly important for the larger society to hear. Maybe, he suggests, they are stories that are too difficult for members of mainstream America to hear. He calls the current reliance on mandatory-minimum, truth-in-sentencing, and other measures that restrict judicial discretion or narrow rehabilitative alternatives for offenders, a “way of hiding” from the difficult moral an economic issues the nation’s crime problem raises.
Crime, he suggests, is not senseless, if care is committed to understanding the offenders’ lives. “The youngster that will go out and actually kill someone—the one who will actually pull the trigger—will be quite different in life experience from the other kids [in his gang]. If you can get in the mind of that person [their crime] can make some sense—albeit a warped sense—and it is based on his life experience. . . They’re quite understandable crimes if you take the time to understand them—this is not to excuse them or to deny the tragedy of them.”
If they were your kids, Miller asks, wouldn’t you want to know why they committed their crimes? Wouldn’t you want to help them as much as you would? Would you believe that they were completely beyond redemption? “If we treated all these kids as if they were our sons and daughters,” Miller says, “we’d have a pretty decent system.”
Give liberty to captives
How to begin building a more humane, and in Miller’s estimation, a more productive system? Miller would begin by finding sentencing alternatives like community service, education, or drug addiction services for most nonviolent offenders.
“We are trying to deal with what are essentially complex family, economic, and human problems with the meat axe of the criminal-justice system. So much of it is really a public health issue.”
Jesus began his public ministry proclaiming liberty to captives (see Luke 4:18). Can society today afford to free its prisoners into alternative programs? Wouldn’t that unleash a wave of violent crime? The truth is most people warehoused in prison are not violent offenders. More than 70 percent of state inmates in 1993 were convicted of nonviolent offenses, including 30 percent for drug offenses and 31 percent for property crimes. Sixty percent of federal prisoners in 1995 were incarcerated on drug charges, many of them first offenses.
“There are interesting alternatives [to incarceration] being tried,” says Mauer. “The real crunch is: Can we develop enough of a political movement to convince policymakers that we need to undo some of the policies that are driving the system? I don’t see that in the short run.”
Miller estimates that as many as 90 percent of America’s incarcerated juvenile offenders could be placed in alternative programs. “We’ve got to have a system that is based on understanding each individual,” says Miller. “We have the capacity to do that, but we choose the meat axe instead. There’s no reason to sell off our decency and our humanity to buy public safety.”
“I know education works,” says Nic Howell, running through his anti-crime recipe. “I know drug treatment works—we do a bunch of it when they’re in prison. . . Keep them in school, get them a job when they get out, and they probably won’t be gang-banging.”
“It’s no big secret,” says Howell. “You just have to have the will to do it.” The will to invest at least as much in preventing crimes as in building new prison cells, the will to acknowledge that each new prison cell constructed represents not a victory on the war on crime but a profound failure.
And in the meantime it may merely be civilized if America changes its general attitude toward its existing incarcerated population and begins making a meaningful commitment to their restoration as productive and valued citizens.
Sheridan’s warden Keith Cooper offers a warning that society ignores their people at its own peril. According to one estimate, 95 percent of the inmates currently enduring the psychological and physical worst that America’s prison systems can offer in super-max solitary confinement will one day achieve parole or probation. Cooper, for one, eyes warily continuing efforts to restrict programming and privileges for inmates by a public that has developed a firm conviction of the cushiness of prison life.
Recent legislative efforts in Illinois have focused on eliminating college education programs, television, or weight lifting behind bars—small examples of a comprehensive effort to make prison life as insidiously and unrelentingly unpleasant as possible. Unfortunately no one seems to be asking those folks who will have to administer such policies—and will have to control what could turn into a more embittered prison population—what they thing. “I think it could be rough for us,” says Cooper.
“There’s a real world inside a prison, and it has to be manages somehow. You can have an attitude of just locking people up and throwing away the key, but that’s the movies. That’s not healthy for the inmate, and that’s not healthy for the people who work here. These people have been written off; most people don’t understand that these guys will eventually return to the street, and we have to prepare them or we are doing a disservice to the public.” Cooper looks up from a computer printout of Sheridan’s inmate count.
“They may be your neighbor,” he says.