Prison Blues

Just catching up on my ‘need to blog this’ list…

The NY Times recently ran this article about how 1 in 100 U.S. adults are currently incarcerated.  Even more startling is the racial disparity.

“Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.”

As the article points out, being tough on crime is political glitter used when budgets are fat and little effort is spent on rehabilitation such as counseling, mental health & drug assistance, job training, etc..  Then when budgets start tightening, we see prisons releasing many long-term prisoners with little assistance towards re-adjusting to their lives, thus increasing the chances that they may re-offend. 

We’re starting to see some interesting effects from this at San Francisco General Hospital where I work in the ER.  I’ve had 3 people in the last month who were released from jail after 25-30 years of incarceration.  I’ve witnessed total Shawshank Redemption-esque incapacitation as there isn’t nearly enough case management of the folks who get released & they no longer know how to manage their lives (one diabetic, for example, who had no idea how to administer his own insulin).

I think there’s a clear answer, whether we’re willing to do it or not (and it’s what I’ve said since I was working to develop drug court programs in Georgia) – shorter periods of incarceration with long-term intensive case-management and counseling.  It’s worked amazingly well with repeat drug offenders who show significant decrease in recidivism rates in these types of programs (note page 13 of this study). 

Of course, it would take an incredible overhaul of the system so I’m not terribly optimistic that the idea will ever catch on other than in small pilot programs – which is probably the way it will go if it goes at all. 

It’s time for us as a newly-enlightening society to stop looking to punishment to solve the problem of crime and start looking at the root of why people commit crimes – cycles of poverty, racism, mental health issues, education, & addiction. 


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