Human beings in our prisons

by Rob Tiller

The Raleigh News & Observer’s headlines for the past few days have blared the news that several dangerous persons in the state’s prison system are about to be released.  I ignored the story initially, on the theory that this surely happens every day without devastating consequences.  Prisoners serve their time, and they get out.  It’s very common.

Thinking about prisons and prisoners is painful, and it’s easy not to think about them.  They’re usually well out of sight.  I drive past Central Prison on the way to work every day, but I barely see it, because it’s unsightly and I’ve gotten in the habit of looking the other way.  But the N&O stories reminded me that we need to deal with a terrible situation.

Imprisonment as we in the U.S. now practice it is in many cases horrific for the prisoners and it’s hard to say if it makes us any safer.  It locks away some dangerous people, but it also creates more dangerous people. We lock people up for years in dehumanizing conditions, which has a tendency to make people angry and violent, then let them out.  Many then commit more crimes, so we send them back to prison, and repeat the cycle.  Multiply this by millions.

Depressing as it is, it’s even worse that our governor and our newspaper are seeking to whip people into a frenzy about particular convicted criminals getting out.  The particular circumstances relate to a new case interpreting the meaning of  a “life sentence.”   For a lot of years in many places, it didn’t mean “till the prisoner died.”  The North Carolina courts found it didn’t mean that for these prisoners, but rather meant 80 years minus good behavior time.  So a group of felons who’ve served at least 40 years are due to get out.

The problem is similar to Guantanamo, where even after we admitted what we did was wrong, we’ve got a problem with outplacement of the prisoners.  They may not have been dangerous when they went in, but in whatever case, they’re likely to be more dangerous having spent years with fellow prisoners who are violent jihadists for their only friends.

In terms of human misery, the U.S. prison system is enormous.  We’re at or near the top in per capita rates of imprisonment.  We have no concept of what we’re trying to accomplish other than punishment.

We need to reserve our prisons for the truly dangerous.  And we need to treat those people humanely to see if we can help them become less violent.  It doesn’t matter whether you argue the point in terms of human rights or pure self interest — the result is the same.  But we’d feel more like decent human beings if we got rolled up our sleeves and got to work on this.