Prison-Industrial Complex: The Magic Thinking Of America’s ‘Tough On Crime’ Reactionary Types

I recently participated in a debate on Facebook about criminals and American incarceration. The debate sprang from an article about a repeat offender, committing yet another robbery only weeks after release from a nine-year sentence. My takeaway from this conversation is that America’s prison-industrial complex will not change as long as most Americans are passive on this issue. And that’s because there are a fair number of people in this country who have a philosophy that one should die for the crimes he or she commits, particularly if a repeat offender. In their minds, the only requirement that need be met for a death sentence is their sole judgement that this human being no longer deserves to live, and will never be a useful member of society.

When I tried to point out there is a huge difference between robbery and murder, this is the response I got.

Unthinking Reactionary Type: While there’s a “difference” between robbery and murder there’s no room in society for either. No, I don’t think we should execute someone for robbing a liquor store once unless someone is killed in the process. But if he pops right back out of jail and does it again? Have a seat.

This is the problem when you try to have a nuanced conversation about how best to deal with less than ideal situations. People just say things like “personal responsibility” and move on. Or worse, they say really offensive things like this guy, sentencing someone to death for robbery. These people can’t be bothered with the details.

You can say a criminal is responsible for his actions, and everybody agrees with this point. There isn’t a single person saying that we should deflect blame away from people who commit crimes, and I get tired of hearing that kind of rhetoric when attempting to inject some reasoned thought into an issue most people like to ignore.

But these are the facts — We are all paying for the over 2 million people in prison, at an average of $24,000 per year for each inmate. If you don’t like that we have to pay for this, then maybe we should make smarter decisions on how we use that money. And maybe we should make smarter decisions when it comes to incarcerating people in the first place. For example, why would we put a non-violent drug offender in a prison (due to a mandatory minimum law) along with violent offenders? How is that going to reform someone? And if their crime was use/possession, how exactly does this sentence treat the addiction?

There are too many people in this country who dismiss people who mess up. They treat them as less than human, sweep them under the rug, and try as best they can to forget they exist. And everyone gets lumped together, leaving no room to distinguish the type of crime committed. But even if you ignore all of this, you will still be paying for their incarceration. And one day that person will be free again, possibly standing next to you on the street. So maybe it makes sense that we do a better job trying to reform people, instead of saying “personal responsibility” and pretending that throwing criminals together in a fortified building will magically lead to reform.

The act of going to prison should be rehabilitation enough. If it’s not, then the person is useless to society.

Hardly. That’s simply magical thinking.

These reactionary types mistake concern for what’s best for society has being soft on crime or apologizing for the crimes of others. No, it’s being smart about the laws we pass, the sentences we hand down, and the way we incarcerate people. It’s about finding ways to reduce crime that actually work. What we don’t need is more punitive reactionary knee-jerk bullshit.

And the war on drugs is a perfect example of failed “tough on crime” policies. Our stance on drugs for over 40 years is not so much intended to fix a problem, as much as it’s meant to extend punitive platitudes, uttered by spineless politicians, to appease the masses. About the same percentage of the population uses drugs now compared to before we declared a war on a substance. So clearly creating a more punitive system, in this case for drug offenders, did nothing to lower the recidivism and use rates.

So while my position does include a modicum of human compassion, even for those who have fucked up in life, it’s mostly about the good of society. We are not improving the society in which we live by ignoring prisoners and hoping they will miraculously reform themselves, in the worst of possible places for reform.

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