When I advocate for the Jubilee
, I get a lot of nodding heads for the parts about canceling all debts and bringing all the soldiers home, but a lot of good people have reservations about releasing all the prisoners. Yes, that is one of the provisions of the Jubilee as described in Leviticus 25. Those who believe in the Bible would be well served by reading everything it says about prisons, but since I don't claim to live by the Bible, I'm not going there.
I truly believe that the world would be safer if we released every person now held in US prisons. This nation now imprisons more than 1% of all residents, a greater number than any nation ever has, and it's not making us any safer. Recidivism is up, at least partly driven by the insatiable greed of prisons for profit. The industry drives laws through the American Legislative Exchange Council mandating more and longer sentences, thus making greater profits. They exploit the prisoners for cheap labor and charge whatever they like for the most basic amenities, like shampoo, toothpaste, and phone calls.
Many prisoners when finally released have poor odds of staying out. They are often in debt and required to register their living arrangements with local authorities, who suspect them first of any wrongdoing. Stigmatized by society, they are part of a huge criminal under culture that sees no reason to respect the law. Since the prison profits from their return, they are given no substantial assistance in learning how to live legitimately.
A disproportionate percentage of prisoners are people of color, often locked up for things white folk routinely get away with. Please read Michele Alexander's New Jim Crow to begin to understand the tragic of infusion of racism in the program of mass incarceration in the USA. Poor white guards lord their power over prisoners and abuses are rampant, especially as draconian lawmakers justify treatment such as routine humiliation or extended solitary confinement, internationally recognized as torture.
What about the crimes these people have committed? About half are undocumented immigrants whose only real crime is being born in the wrong place. The USA is happy to import all the resources, but not the people who were dependent upon those resources. It is exceedingly difficult for those born in the global south to find a legal path for immigration. When they cross borders to find the only work available to sustain their families (due to international market manipulation like NAFTA), they submit themselves to occasional jail terms. The average stay in ICE detention is two years before inevitable deportation and many repeat this pattern through their lives.
The second biggest cause of imprisonment is drug offenses, primarily marijuana possession. It is now common knowledge that pot is safer than either alcohol or tobacco, but painstakingly slow to change old laws. Even if the drug in question is crystal meth or heroin, society would be better served by building effective treatment programs rather than prisons. It is draconian to lock people away for a medical condition like addiction. It's also a waste of money. The most common addictions are to alcohol and nicotine, which we treat differently than every other drug. Why? Addicts rarely have much difficulty getting a fix behind bars. What better place to learn how to steal & cheat to support a habit?
"What," you may ask, "about serious crimes, like murder?" Having lost my sister to murder, I feel qualified to answer this one. Locking up her killer did not bring her back, nor did it likely prevent any further murders, if we're honest about it. The cascading of violence was unchecked. A man who was wounded in the same shooting was later sought for questioning about another murder in the same place. Prison did nothing to fix our pain or save others.
Murder historically has the lowest rate of recidivism of all crimes. People are unlikely to kill twice because killing another person is a very distasteful experience. Generally, murder is a crime of passion. People lose their head when they become killers. Knowing they have killed is the greatest punishment most murderers suffer. Some even seek relief on death row because they are unable to forgive themselves for such depravity.
There are serial killers who have somehow rationalized repeated killing. The vast majority of these sick people work for the government, either in a military role like JSOC or as state executioners. It is past time we join the civilized world and stop teaching and encouraging such behavior. Perhaps isolation from civil society is an appropriate part of the treatment of these people, but there are too few examples of such healing in prisons.
I will admit there are sociopaths and psychopaths in our prisons. The most difficult to reconcile are the rapists, who are very likely to repeat their crime. I wouldn't be the first to recognize that our society does a poor job of dealing with the culture of rape. High school heroes who commit heinous rapes get a wink and a nod, as long as the victim was considered insignificant by local officials. The majority of rapes do not lead to conviction and most convicted rapists are eventually released to rape again. Rape, both heterosexual and homosexual, is much more common in the military than in civil society, because the military is all about violent control.
Unfortunately, the prison system teaches this behavior. Our reliance upon prisons increases the incidence of rape. Rape in prison is more common than outside, whether perpetrated by guards or fellow inmates. Misogyny and homophobia are rampant in prison culture. Indeed the existence of prisons as institutions stands as proof that brutal domination is the ultimate power.
But that's a lie. The suffering of brutality is shared by the perpetrator. The suicide rate among prison guards is 39 percent higher than the average for other occupations, an Archives of Suicide Research study found, almost as high as that of combat veterans. In prisons, guards and prisoners together wallow in the misery of inhumanity and it's not making anything better, because prisons are still part of the outside world and they are dragging us down. It is time for broad scale liberation.
Prisons, like militaries, are part of a government run protection racket. As long as you pay the boss your fealty and we don't have any reason to suspect that you come from a demographic likely to rebel, the government guns will protect you. If they suspect you may get out of line, or find a good way to make more money exploiting you, you're toast.
Because prisons are doing more harm than good, I favor a radical shift. Shut them down. Release all prisoners. Repurpose the resources to solve social problems. Prisons could be converted to voluntary detoxification centers, akin to Buddhist monastaries, where people could peacefully detoxify through simple work and diet. By removing the element of violent control, we open the possibility of genuine healing.
What do we do with sociopaths and psychopaths? Help them heal. Relieve their suffering and they will stop spreading it. The methods of psychologist Carl Rogers and his student, Marshall Rosenberg, have proven very effective for decades in encouraging the natural development of empathy and compassion. Everyone can benefit from reading Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication. Please study the work of The Freedom Project in Washington State prisons. This project has proven to be one of the most effective treatment programs ever, even for serial rapists.
Okay, say people rise up and demand a clean start. Crime is not going to suddenly go away. What do we do about crimes if we don't lock people up?
After the Jubilee, there may still be a role for prisons in our society, but on a much smaller scale than we now practice. Only those who have proven themselves to be an irresolvable threat to society should be locked away and they should get continual compassionate treatment, so that we don't fall back into the mess we now have. Nobody is beyond redemption, but some may die before they decide to learn how to live responsibly with others. The best we can do is keep giving them chances to prove their recovery. If we sink to treating them as irredeemable, we risk losing our own humanity and sinking to their level.
Perhaps the best examples of functional criminal justice systems come from places that have recovered from violent civil war, South Africa and Northern Ireland. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that a simple, honest examination of their violent past, hearing from the players on all sides of the violence, created better understanding and room to focus on building a better future together. Ireland's system of Restorative Justice sat convicted perpetrators of violence in mediated sessions with their victims. In most cases they were able to find avenues for perpetrators to express remorse and make amends, which freed the victims to forgive. It wasn't easy, but it was very fruitful and saved a huge amount of money that had been wasted on prisons, releasing men who became productive members of a healing society.
Violence is not inevitable. Every two year old learns that it is not acceptable to hurt others. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by love and compassion know a force more powerful. Let's all start living up to our own best ideals.