Media sensationalism cultivates the misperception that casualties in corrections is a new trend in violence rather than a boiling point. Sound bytes and quotes from outraged politicians make it seem like they were ignorant of the growing crisis or the human element at stake. Diverted funds, excessively punitive laws, and inflexible sentences come at a cost. Political obliviousness is especially disingenuous when the News and Observer and local television stations regularly report on the corruption and dysfunction of North Carolina’s prison system. One would think, instead of taking NCDPS officials at their word, there would be more of a public reckoning.
The NC General Assembly shows little interest in changing the culture of corrections. When House bills intended to impact prisons are presented, only those that align with tough-on-crime rhetoric seem to pass. HB 969 makes it a felony to masturbate in view of a prison guard. The law criminalizes normal sexual urges in an environment devoid of privacy and fails to account for mentally ill offenders in solitary confinement.
Tough laws like HB969 further punish incapacitated offenders, compounding already lengthy sentences and overcrowded prisons. Officer training and recruitment encourages the same “us against them” mentality consuming America. The “new” ideas featured by the Prison Reform Advisory Board are old methods used by former wardens. Their cronyism often facilitated the problems plaguing NC prisons by leaving in place staff responsible for egregious abuses against prisoners.
Incapacitation, punishment and rehabilitation are essential components of incarceration and when one is ignored in favor of others it undermines the criminal justice system. Society generally believes that criminals deserve what they get. The problem with this view is that it warps the purpose of correctional institutions. While a prison sentence is the punishment, one’s treatment in prison should be reformative. Instead, legislators, NCDPS officials, and prison administrators use “just desserts” to guide their policy decisions. As a result, prisoners are denigrated and many in the public accept our systemic abuse as a necessary evil of confinement. The flaw in treating prisoners like enslaved enemies who deserve no help is that most will earn release and bring what they experience back into the community.
Just as accountability and reformation are the responsibility of prisoners, prison officials must create an environment where that is possible. Rehabilitation is the responsibility of prisoner, guard, and prison officials alike. Punishment and incapacitation alone create violent human warehouses that post a constant threat to public safety. The culture of corrections must evolve into one where offenders are educated, officers encourage accountability and ethical conduct, and prison administrators foster a learning environment that incentivizes good behavior.
Solving prison violence means implementing programs that work in other states. California’s Senate passed the 2014 California College Promise Grant, which funds community college degree programs in 34 of its 35 prisons. Although a small step, the availability of higher ed and the senate’s investment in incarcerated citizens (it is also available to low income citizens) advances the fact prison reform is an attainable goal. Legislative support of rehabilitation is acknowledgement of the direct link between corrections, reentry, and public safety. New York and Texas also support extensive higher education and rehabilitative programming. Together, America’s three largest state prison systems embrace rehabilitation without seeming to coddle prisoners.
To be effective, prison must be a transformative experience, but without parole-eligible sentences and higher education this becomes less likely. Public, legislative and judicial understanding of prison must reject the policies of mass incarcerations. Public safety requires a conscious decision to rehabilitate people in prison and treat them as investments in the community. Until this becomes the culture of confinement, prison will remain a violent place, one that puts everybody in danger.