There is no satisfactory answer to why people become criminals. Theft crimes, for example, rise and fall with unemployment, but that’s only one of many factors. Trouble sometimes begins with birth into environments of physical, sexual, or substance abuse, criminal activity, divorce, head injuries, poverty and ignorance. But none of those precursors causes crime. Most people with those disadvantages do not become criminals. Criminals also come from the better side of the tracks. In his book Inside the Criminal Mind, Dr. Stanton E. Samenow, a clinical psychologist, powerfully demolishes much of the conventional wisdom portraying criminals as victims of their parents, poverty, mental illnesses and life circumstances. Instead, Dr. Samenow found that criminals are defined by how they think; and they definitely think differently than law-abiding people. Most criminals are manipulative, use people as they please, fancy themselves in control, con others successfully, posture as tough guys and do not like to work hard at school or regular jobs. They thrive on intimidation and stealth. Crooks dish it out, but cannot take criticism. A minority pity their victims. Most have little remorse until caught. Crime progresses when these profoundly selfish young people bully others, get high, sell drugs, steal, gamble, rob stores, join gangs, rape and participate in violence, thrill seeking, intimidation and depravity. Drugs, intoxicants, theft, gangs, sex, violence or some combination of them help create new age slaves. People decide to disobey the law for their own self-centered reasons.
Prisons are supposed to act as a deterrent to criminal activity. Being unpleasant, potential offenders should be so afraid of going to prison that they do not commit crimes. But it doesn’t work that way. That’s how law-abiding citizens think. The criminal mind works differently, with less foresight and conscience. Criminals enjoy the excitement and risks, do not anticipate capture, and instead focus on what they want. By one computation, only 1.2% of burglaries result in the burglar going to prison. A low risk of punishment increases crime. Successful burglars celebrate their accomplishments. Good deterrents are certain, severe and swift. Prison is not certain, probation or youthful offender status often being granted or crimes are not even prosecuted. Prison is not always perceived as severe. Many never see a prison until they arrive. Inmates often sleep or just sit in their cells. When Mike Tyson first went to juvenile detention, it was like a reunion for him, because so many of his friends and acquaintances were already there – of course he was one of the few who did not worry about being attacked. Confinement is definitely not swift, either in the judicial process or in the sentence itself. Prisons are usually very bad places to be, but the prospect of going there fails to deter massive numbers of crimes and criminals. Out of sight, out of mind. Criminals do not always know or compute the number of years they are likely to serve for a given crime. They do not usually believe they will be caught. When they arrive behind bars, offenders often think they are the victims, that they got a raw deal in life, that they would plan better next time, that prison is a mark of accomplishment for a gangster like them, etc.
Youth, gender, and lack of education, more than other factors, explain violent crime. Well over half of all prisoners in America are high school dropouts. The vast majority are males. Males between the ages of 16 and 28 commit an overwhelming percentage of violent crimes, including first-degree murder. The very basic leading cause of violent crime in America is young male aggression in one form or another. Younger offenders are more likely to fail at probation or parole than are older convicts. In 2008, 45% of all murder victims were 20 to 34 years old. Studies show the human brain does not fully develop until age 28.
Prisons are revolving doors for recidivists. The number released is about equal to the number imprisoned. Every year, a large and poorly disciplined American army of released prisoners – over 700,000 ex-cons – goes back to the streets, many to make the world worse. Released prisoners carry extremely high rates of communicable diseases, AIDS, HIV infection, syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and tuberculosis, often undiagnosed, into their communities, families and neighborhoods. Released convicts face many re-entry obstacles, most do not make the transition successfully, and huge numbers are recycled back into prison. Instead of making people less prone to commit crimes, prisons increase the likelihood that convicts will commit more crimes upon the completion of their sentences. Prisons, especially overcrowded ones where different levels of offenders are mixed together, are “criminogenic,” they cause more crime. Prisons are, as Jens Soering’s 2004 book title reveals, An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse.
Possessions are removed, family excluded, sexual desire frustrated. The sex ratio is at its most forbidding for normal sex, 100% of one sex versus zero of the opposite sex. Sexual deviancy increases. Life is unpleasant. Sanity depends upon mental toughness. Worries remain. Most prisoners are unhappy, many all of the time. Pagan, satanic, racist and occult religious texts are much more popular in prison than outside. Many contemplate, attempt or commit suicide or self-mutilation. The suicide rate for American prisoners is five to 15 times greater than it is for the general American population. Fewer chaplains and programs for inmates exist than in prior years.
We take every prisoner away from spouses, friends and family, constantly replicating the awful fate of many antebellum slaves. The free world isolates and abandons prisoners with long sentences. Many prisoners do not receive any visits from friends or family. Solid barriers separate the prisoner and any visitors during visits. Social isolation harms the prisoner’s self-esteem, as rejection often does, including the isolation we start with, suspending and expelling students from school. Gangs then successfully recruit members in prison from among the isolates, metastasizing their anti-social ideas and breeding virulent racism and religious bigotry. Prisonization occurs, which is the process whereby prisoners take on the penitentiary’s sick underclass values, codes and dogma. The longer the prison sentence, the more prisonization affects the prisoner.
The closed environment of prison is kept from view because prisons severely restrict the media’s access, routinely prohibit press interviews, and monitor and censor mail and telephone communications. Dreadful things often do not receive investigation or publicity. Through the centuries, lack of communication between prison and the outside world allowed abuses to grow undetected inside the closed prison environment.
Prisons harm people in several ways, but do not make enough of them “penitent.” Incarceration teaches depravity, affects minds adversely, and then releases its damaged products into the free world on their mandatory release date or on parole. Prisons are warehouses for criminal minds. Criminals learn better how to commit crimes, but not how to be productive in the free world or how to abandon their selfishness. Solid evidence proves that returning parolees increase crime rates in their neighborhoods.
In the last 20 years, the use of segregation or solitary confinement has increased markedly, far more than the already skyrocketing prison population as a whole, worsening outcomes and significantly increasing expense to the prison system. Solitary confinement – known as isolation, punitive segregation, disciplinary segregation, segregated housing, and other names – causes psychiatric harm in manifold ways, especially to those with previous mental illnesses. Solitary confinement can cause psychotic disorganization, self-destructive behavior, delusions, panic attacks, paranoia and an inability to adapt to the general prison population. Hypersensitivity, rage, aggression, plus memory, concentration and impulse-control problems also can stem from segregated housing units. Intolerance of social interaction is one of the more common results. America’s Super-Max Prisons improve safety for correctional staff and are essentially jails within prisons, increasingly concentrating dangerous inmates in solitary confinement instead of dispersing troublemakers throughout the system. Prisoners typically receive only one hour per day outside their Super-Max cell, often alone. Nelson Mandela knew men in prison who preferred half a dozen lashes with a whip to solitary confinement. Mandela wrote that the absence of human companionship is most dehumanizing. Modern psychiatrists agree with Charles Dickens and Nelson Mandela. Speaking of the ill effects of solitary confinement, Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, M.D. said our systems of solitary confinement, “deeply offend any sense of common human decency.” When one reads the names of a few famous criminals housed in Super-Max, sympathy declines, which is probably why our society permits this clean version of hell.
Our society does a poor job of punishing someone’s first few crimes. We most often opt for probation, juvenile court or youthful offender status. Very inconsistent aspects of the criminal justice system involve the decision whether to grant probation or send someone to prison at each of several junctures. Fines are meaningless for criminals without money or property, so only one hard punishment now exists. Convicted felons either go to the misery of prison or receive a very light punishment: probation. Probation often sets them up for a prison sentence. Many receive probation, do not learn their lesson, offend again, and eventually go to prison. The need for intermediate punishments was highlighted in Graham v. Florida, a recent Supreme Court decision, where a juvenile received probation for his first offense of armed burglary with assault or battery, and for his second offense of home invasion robbery, got life-without-parole. Juvenile court may shield their first few crimes from scrutiny, because juvenile records often don’t count in adult courts. Young offenders sometimes have to rack up one or two felonies as an adult before they go to prison. Convicts regret committing that very last crime, the one that sends them to prison. Deciding whether to punish with a feather or a sledgehammer does not give criminal judges much flexibility.
We built massive corrections systems without any scientific proof they were effective as deterrence or rehabilitation and with no recent effort to make them profitable. It’s as if we put a toxic chemical in consumer products without any toxicity studies. Modern researchers – along with the rest of us – tend to ignore and forget prisons and prisoners. Scientific research is still woefully lacking given the enormity of the current crisis. Incredibly, there are no rigorous studies or statistics about people who change their thought patterns, behavior and criminal lifestyle after soul-searching in prison. We do not know how to succeed. The architecture of prisons is impressive from the outside, but the way to successfully deal with their inhabitants has always been uncertain and unproven.
Idealists originally thought penitentiaries would make prisoners penitent, leading to religious conversions and rehabilitation. To accomplish this, they did the worst thing they could do: they isolated prisoners in a very bad environment. Sometimes prisoners had to keep silent, another form of solitary confinement. Cutting off prisoners from society made it difficult for inmates to keep their sanity or cope on the outside. Isolation from normal society made it that much easier to learn criminal ways inside the prison. Prisoners lost feelings of self-worth. While appropriate punishment promotes pro-social cooperation in normal human society, punishment that completely removes individuals from cooperative society also deprives normal society of any pro-social behavior brought about by that punishment.
Idealists and vindictive people who did not understand the effects of confinement wanted others, beneath themselves, to go there, just as non-drinkers obtained passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to initiate Prohibition: another failed social experiment. The public agreed to the idea of prisons because it got rid of the problem temporarily and seemed better than capital and corporal punishment. Imprisonment was considered civilized and modern. Prisons were out of sight, so slumbering humanity could ignore them. Idealists gave birth to a monster, just as those who sought to create a workers’ paradise had done. Few of the great ideals and theories about penitentiaries produced a system that worked as anticipated. Most reform efforts merely made an impractical institution better for several years in certain locations.
Abandonment of corporal punishment in favor of incarceration turned out to be a change from an emphasis on rehabilitation within normal society to one on incapacitation outside it. Reformers thought they would isolate prisoners and shape their behavior. They placed prisoners in the equivalent of Skinner boxes, but then provided very few rewards or punishments inside those cells. The all-powerful pro-social forces of school, family, church, employment and community were abandoned, subtracted from the process. Prisons rewarded inactivity with food, clothing and shelter, but pro-social activity was nearly impossible to have or reward inside the cell. Concentration on specific prisoner behavior became logistically and financially prohibitive. Altruistic punishment and the cooperation it supports work best in smaller groups, but those small groups were abandoned in favor of huge groups.
In addition to keeping prisoners in, prisons made it tough for free people to enter them for purposes of assistance or monitoring. Monitoring prison conditions over the course of many years became even more difficult for outsiders to accomplish. The inability to shape prisoner behavior was obvious well before we built a million cells. Regular attention to individual behavior only comes about when a financial incentive exists for those in control to monitor individuals.
Crime victims are not satisfied, society and taxpayers pay an enormous price, massive amounts of time and money are wasted, correctional professionals are frustrated and overworked, and prisoners come out of prison in worse shape after years of bullying, violence and isolation. In a land rightly concerned about the declining percentage of younger workers who have to support increasing numbers of retirees, we cage millions of young, able-bodied people and keep them inactive most of the time. When the Thirteenth Amendment specifically allowed involuntary servitude as punishment for crime, we halted almost all of it decades ago. Only a tiny fraction work hard behind bars. Former Chief Justice Warren Burger called for making prisons “factories behind fences,” but special interests thwarted most attempts to expand prison labor.
By taking over two million workers out of the economy, we create labor shortages. Foreign workers, many of them illegal aliens, are then enticed to work in the United States. If we counted prisoners in the national unemployment calculations, the unemployment rate would rise significantly, because about 1.5% of the entire U.S. civilian labor force is sitting behind bars. Every prisoner requires direct financial subsidy and we suffer lost production, a true cost of inactivity. Our current system preserves “often intolerably stupid and unjust practices,” just as one prison historian noted early in the twentieth century. During incarceration, the social support network prisoners need to survive on the outside is destroyed or damaged. Mass imprisonment hurts the entire American economy and the families who are without family members at home. Prisons deprive American families of family members, and the American sex ratio is unbalanced as a result. Poorer communities and families suffer. Kids grow up without parents. Over half of male prisoners are fathers; many female inmates are mothers. Without doubt, children with parents in prison are far more likely to go there themselves.
By no means does this short article spell out all the reasons modern mass incarceration is a disaster. But you get the general idea: change is needed.