Officially the penitentiary has existed since the eighteenth century, although human beings have imprisoned one another since the beginning of recorded time. The concept of the penitentiary was invented by Pennsylvania Quakers who chose the word from the Latin paenatentia, meaning repentance. Their technique consisted of isolating the inmate with little more than a Christian Bible. Although modern institutions provide various creature comforts and are presumably less draconian than their Quaker templates, a definitive method of rehabilitation has yet to be invented. In other words, we’ve come a certain way, but sustainable progress remains elusive. A comparison can be drawn to the military-industrial complex: modern warfare is obviously more sophisticated than even half a century ago, yet humans are no closer to achieving peace.
For the purposes of this essay I have used the term “prison” to refer to any institution where people are imprisoned. This includes any camp, farm, jail, or center that fits the description.
Not only have prisons become warehouses, the so-called corrections industry has become big business. Prison industries exploit cheap labor without offering incentives such as paid sick leave, stock options, vacation time, or a retirement package. Furthermore, skills acquired prior to incarceration are not encouraged as most prisons have a “no business” rule that prevents them from entering into unauthorized contracts with inmates. It is ludicrous to expect one to achieve rehabilitation if they aren’t allowed to make a decent living while on the inside.
The vast majority of those detained will be released someday. They should be treated as such—not as a number but as a future neighbor. Allowing them to engage in the free market economy while incarcerated would be beneficial for everyone. The freedom to invest, advise, and earn should not be compromised by confinement. Limited earning potential has always been a hallmark of the system. Not only does this put the prisoner at a severe disadvantage upon release, it denies victims and the state the right to receive speedy restitution.
Property restrictions and rules against fraternizing also discourage the artistic and intellectual growth of the incarcerated. Not being able to directly access the Internet or own more than a few books at a time make serious research difficult.
Statistics consistently show that prisoners who have a strong support network of friends and family have a lower rate of recidivism. Rehabilitation advocates should then ask why more isn’t being done to foster these relationships. Currently only a handful of states allow some form of conjugal visiting. Of those that do it is typically mandatory for the prisoners to have been married before their incarceration in order to be eligible. The “family visiting” programs or similar practices are often denied to lifers or out-of-state transfers.
More commonly known is the fact that most jails (places where the majority of the population has not been convicted of a crime) allow only brief no-contact visitation and notoriously place unreasonable restrictions on correspondence. This includes limiting the number of pages, rising costs of commissary-purchased envelopes, or restrictions on photographs considered too revealing. The prisoner’s heart is not caged but our means of expressing it certainly are.
In conclusion, we must look at the apparent character of the human psyche. Not just of the criminal mind but human nature as a whole. Our inclination towards greed, lust, revenge, and addiction transcend age, gender, or social class. Our base motivations are often the same, fueled by money and love. At the risk of sounding inelegant, this author proposes that the very same incentives that inspire crime can be instrumental in prisoner reform.