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  • Trish MacEnulty

Lengthy Prison Sentences Hurt Us All


I’m not against the idea of incarceration, but the way we do it now is an ineffective and inefficient drain on our resources. Last week I went to the women’s prison in Lowell, Florida to give a talk to the GED graduates. I told the inmates that while I was currently an author and a college professor, at one time I had been in the exact same place they were. Afterwards, a lovely woman, a mother of one of the inmates, thanked me for my “testimony.”

“These girls need to hear that there’s hope,” she said. Then her daughter came over. I was shocked to learn she’d spent 22 years in prison. But she was getting out next year and she had big hopes and dreams. I walked away, thinking, that’s a hell of a lot of time to be out of society. Her transition will be so much harder than she can imagine.

Our approach to incarceration has to be radically reformed. Locking someone up for 22 years is no more effective than locking someone up for five years. Imagine if, instead of warehousing this woman for 22 years (in spite of whatever crime she committed), she was locked up for five years or however long it took to “rehabilitate” her, to do the psychological work, the vocational or education training, the therapeutic effort to enable her to live a successful, productive life. Instead of spending resources on 22 years of feeding and housing a person with the occasional training program, we should make the time spent in prison intensely effective, and then reap the benefits of having a productive citizen out in our society.

I personally spent a total of 18 months incarcerated. In that time I took a couple of college courses and attended a self-help program for inmates. That was not a huge investment and yet when I came out, I became a productive, tax-paying citizen and I’ve managed to contribute to society in various ways ever since. You may say I’m an anomaly, but many people have come out of prison and managed to have successful lives in spite of the enormous obstacles in their path. On the other hand, many others come out and flail about with no direction. And still others stay in year after year depleting resources.

A person’s sentence should not be determined by their crime, but by how long it will take to alter their path so that they will be a constructive element in society and not a destructive one. And if the person is always going to be a danger to others, then we have to find a way for them to be productive contributors within a confined, but humane, setting.

The scenario that I’m painting can easily be imagined as a dystopia. Remember the scene in “A Clockwork Orange” where Alex is tortured as he is brainwashed into hating violence? And of course the Chinese cultural revolution forever destroyed our notion of “re-education.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. For one thing, there are already many highly effective rehabilitation programs in place. A program in Minnesota has actually been effective in helping rehabilitate psychopaths. The prison I visited has a number of programs to help the women learn useful trades. The problem is that they only serve a small number of inmates. We’re not willing to do the work required to make these opportunities available to all. And because of our current punitive mindset, we’re not willing to reward inmates who want to turn their lives around.

In an ideal world, people in custody would be offered programs that include psychological counseling, spiritual study (including humanism), education and vocational training, as well as physical and nutritional education. Upon completion of the appropriate programs, they would be released into a structured release program that ensures a job, further training or education, and housing as well as a support system. Some of these types of programs are already available, but it’s simply not enough. It needs to be immersive and there has to be follow-up and continued support.

This type of attention to our incarcerated populations can be expensive. But it can also be highly cost-effective in terms of reduced rates of recidivism, reduced rates of crime by former felons, lower “warehousing” costs, and less damage to families of convicted persons, which can result in any number of problems.

You may think I am not taking victims into consideration, but victims are rarely satisfied by lengthy prison sentences. Most of them want an acknowledgment of their pain. They want the opportunity to understand the motives of the person who victimized them and they want to be able to convey their feelings to the perpetrator. That’s where the model of restorative justice can be extremely useful. There should be opportunities for restitution — financial and emotional. People who have participated in restorative justice programs report a greater sense of resolution, a renewed ability to move on with their lives, and a sense of freedom as a result of being able to forgive the person who harmed them. Although forgiveness is not necessarily the goal of restorative justice, it is sometimes the result.

There’s been a huge outcry over the short sentence that a man who raped a young woman on the Stanford campus recently received. If you’re looking at the prison sentence strictly as punishment, it is indeed a small price to pay. Six months does not seem like a lot of time for the devastation that this woman experienced, but the woman who was raped has said that what she wants more than anything else (even more than a long prison term for her rapist) is an apology and an acknowledgement of what happened to her. She also deserves financial restitution for lost work time and for the counseling she will need for years to come. Six months is probably not enough time for the kind of therapy this young man needs. So this is the worst form of justice: a short sentence, no restitution, and nothing to make sure he doesn’t do the crime again.

We have the largest incarceration rate in the world, and it’s a colossal waste of human capital as well as tax payers’ dollars. We should ramp up programs, invest in training staff who work with inmates, and make sure that when people come out (which they will do!) they have the emotional and vocational or professional skills to thrive.


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