Both the penal and criminal justice systems are complex institutions that are manipulated by the three branches of the state and federal governments. To think any one of these branches is responsible for the high volume of prisoners in the U.S. is naive at best. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government act semi-autonomously, and partially in concert, to create this hulking mess we call the "justice system". Where there are supposed to be checks and balances against the abuse of power, when it comes to dealing with crime the three join forces and turn into bullies.
Yes, crime absolutely has to be punished and there is still a need for prisons to incapacitate those who pose a real danger to the community, but this is only the beginning of what should be a process of re-education and assisted re-entry. Prison has become the end result, a dumping ground for offenders and innocents alike. Convictions and sentences are all that matter now. It's a small wonder the U.S. incarcerates more citizens per capita than any other democratic nation in the world and is second only to Russia and China. An appalling fact when we invade third world countries to promote democracy and lambast many others for their human rights violations.
Maybe there are simply a lot of criminals in the U.S. and this justifies the need for the prison industrial complex to churn out new prisons like cars. Maybe the lawless are about to overrun society! What is most likely and more truthful is there are too many laws and no realistic preventative measures for reducing crime, incarceration, and recidivism rates.
It's also pretty obvious crime and punishment are thoroughly embedded in our culture to such a degree that it has become entertainment. Well over half of the shows on prime time and day time TV are crime dramas, police and detective shows, judges and lawyers at work (the public defender is usually the bad guy), government agencies after international criminals, women in prison, crime scene investigators, and more. There are countless movies and books illustrating with relish our love of crime and punishment.
Society is interested in the "just desserts" of those who violate the law but, for reasons too lengthy and involved to explain in a single post, that usually means the poor and disenfranchised. God forbid an innocent spends 20 or 30 years in prison -- he or she becomes collateral damage and is always known for that conviction. This is one of many side effects of incarceration binge. Who cares what happens after a conviction has been gained -- as long as somebody is held responsible and there's a lengthy prison term or death sentence, justice has been served.
I'm here to tell you that prison is not the end. The people America incarcerates are not on an island south of Florida (though some are there too) or another planet where criminal offenders are exiled. We are shoved in the back of the closet next to that vote you never really think about and grandma's Christmas sweaters. We are not skeletons but real people who live under the onus of a system out of control and drunk on power, deaf to the cries that echo behind steel doors.
Lyle C. May