William Penn may have envisioned a method of punishment that, if utilized judiciously, would reform the way criminals were dealt with, but he couldn't have foreseen being responsible for planting the seed of America's "incarceration binge". Dickens, a man of keen insight, was perhaps more aware of the danger. He remarked:
"I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony that this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers . . . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be dramatically worse than any torture of the body."
Over time, sentences handed down by the court have lengthened across the board and grown complex and arbitrary in their application. The crimes have changed very little, but the system and public's interpretation of how these crimes should be punished has become unreasonably oppressive. Capital punishment has become radicalized in an effort to make state-sanctioned murder seem humane. Instead, this lie the public tells itself hides an inner ugliness dating back to lynch mobs, punishment parades, and the butchery of condemned criminals and innocents alike. All in the name of "justice".
Prison sentences have become varied and erratic, their inconsistency amongst the wide spectrum of crimes difficult to understand. Dickens noted over 170 years ago that calling incarceration a better alternative to execution invites a culture where torture is justified as a necessary evil for being tough on crime.
Evil is never necessary, it's the excuse we use to avoid harder choices involving reform of the criminal justice system, the kind that is sweeping and permanent. In the past, reform has taken many shapes, becoming more lenient and redemptive, then more restricting and punitive as political races and demands from "voters" dictate. The system does not improve so much as it relaxes. Similar to a man being water-boarded, penal reform cycles through periods of pressure, with the courts increasing the amount of water poured over the mouths of convicts with harsh, unending sentences or death. While this torture is underway, the people beneath this flow of justice become enemy combatants and slaves -- nothing more. When the courts relax their stance, the flow stops, the towel is removed, and prisoners gasp for air. Release and redemption are possible and we become people again. For a while.
Dickens was not speaking of how a sentence is applied to a crime so much as the time one must spend in prison -- specifically solitary confinement, since that was the basis of the first penitentiary. While the two are certainly interwoven, he was more concerned with the nature of a place meant to break the will of human beings and impose suffering.
Prison is much more than suffering 24 hours a day even if Dickens didn't state as much. As a social control the prison system is meant to incapacitate criminals and protect the public. Its primary purpose is to reassert authority over law breakers. What is often overlooked is that prison is also about re-education of the offender.
On his visit to that first penitentiary, Dickens concluded with this: "Those who have undergone this punishment MUST pass into society again morally unhealthy and diseased."
Of course prison was designed to be punitive without resorting to physical torture. It couldn't be helped such a design would be flawed, but the psychological effects of solitary confinement were not well understood back then. There was also this idea that rehabilitation of the prisoner would occur given enough time and quiet contemplation. Incarceration forces us, whether we want to or not, to reflect on the past to such a degree it can be unhealthy and agonizing. To Dickens, a free man in love with liberty, this seemed horrendous, but supporters of the system thought it a brilliant achievement, even if it was misguided. To the convicts this time to reflect was necessary to return to the community as "reformed citizens", not "morally unhealthy and diseased".
Under America's current incarceration binge the element of rehabilitation has all but disappeared. Many offenders were never equipped with the morality and ethics needed to function in a free society so even if rehabilitation existed in any significant way these men and women would lose out. For the most part the penal system is uninterested in reforming offenders because it costs too much and is not in the interests of being "tough on crime". When a prisoner does get released little incentive or training induces the felon to stay in the community and "do the right thing" because now they're stigmatized as "ex-cons". Parole in most states has been replaced with mandatory minimums, probation is usually a bad joke, restitution is just a special tax for offenders, and pre-release programs are more accurately catch-release-catch again programs. Finding a reasonably waged job is really impossible, so too is getting a loan or supporting a family. It forces government subsistence so the high recidivism rate is easy to understand.
For those prisoners given longer terms or "living death sentences" as a life sentence is often referred to, reform and rehabilitation are unrealistic or empty goals. Within the prison, most meaningful work and educational programs are reserved for offenders who may actually return to the street. What remains is a lot of empty time with little to occupy the mind. There are exceptions, of course. Some states maintain programs geared toward helping prisoners rebuild their identity, not for re-entry (if the possibility even exists) so much as to teach why he or she should want to improve who they are and live above the label of "inmate".
The cycle that is prison reform can only be described as cruel, since there is nothing at all unusual about it. The point has been reached where much of the free world views the "American love affair with incarceration" as this unhealthy, morally repugnant way of not dealing with our domestic issues. U.S. prisoners cannot wait for lawmakers to stop pouring water and give them a chance to breathe. Building more prisons, eliminating education programs and funding, executing more people, failing to train re-entering citizens, spending little or no money on programs designed to help communities support families of prisoners, making it harder for ex-cons to be productive citizens -- these actions contribute to the prison epidemic. It's time for some solutions.
Lyle C. May