What do we do with bad guys?

Prison. The place you do not want on your list of travel destinations, definitely nothing to brag about or put on a resume. But what do we know about prison, other than it is “bad” and you do not want to go there? The scenes from movies of cement walls and grim-faced guards eager to use the weapons dangling on their belts? Orange jumpsuits and inmates full of battle scars and face tattoos?

Prison. Since the creation of man’s written and oral means of communication, there have been laws and hierarchies of power as resources have been fought over. Which inevitably meant there would be lawbreakers. What should be done with them? The tradition of hiding away those deemed dangerous to society has been going on since the time of the Romans, probably even before that, as growing societies created “detention centers,” and later prisons. In the Middle Ages, many criminals were forced into manual labor and servitude to the powerful figures who controlled their fates.

Modern-day prison. The idea of incapacitation, in which communities are safer when the people breaking the law are locked away, is very prevalent in today’s prison systems. Prisons have been seen as a twofold cure, acting both as a deterrence to those who wish to break the law and as a place of reform, which helped to create the term “correctional facility.” But just how helpful are they? The majority of people who enter the prison system are not high school graduates, and after fulfilling their time in prison, why would the people in charge of these prisons be surprised when their inmates find themselves right back where they started? I personally have a problem with prisons and my problem is this: the negative connotations surrounding prisons do help deter people from making some bad decisions, but they also keep those inside who are reaching out for help from having real opportunities to better themselves. If a person grows up in a broken family, in a neighborhood full of problems, in any place where they feel unsafe because of those in charge or feel like they cannot turn to those in charge for help, they will feel powerless to stop the evil things happening around them. Powerless and desperate people will do whatever they think will cause change in order to break this system. That usually involves breaking the law. But can a desperate, powerless person explain all this to the people in charge if there is no trust? If someone working within a prison truly believes the people they keep from society are of a lower worth than them, that these people had their chance but they blew it and now they must suffer, then they will never truly listen to anything these people would try to say. The problem I have with our prison system is that it focuses too much on its job security. Prisons never let their inmates truly escape their clutches. If someone who never passed eighth grade is incarcerated, and then during that time given nothing to learn, nothing to help them find a way to attack the problem in society that caused their defiance, why wouldn’t they soon return? People in prison are given a reputation that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Every job application means a background check, and the jobs available to people fresh out of prison are not known for their educational drive. They are forced to live in a limited world because of their previous bad decisions, and if they are unable to break that chain, why would they not feel powerless and desperate? How can our society continue to say that we are in a time of great intellectual advancement and sociological progress if we still label people as “bad,” if we still lock away those deemed “dangerous,” and then do nothing to help them? When people start breaking the law, that is a sign of a bigger problem that needs to be addressed.

I may be overlooking some facts, I may be generalizing some statements, and I may be romanticizing the ideals of some inmates, but I have personal experience with loved ones being taken to prison. I know their struggles years after incarceration to find good jobs, to get approved for loans, to find help. My personal experience when visiting my loved ones in prison was such overwhelming sadness, not only because of the failure within my family, but also because of the lack of opportunity those I visited felt when they thought about their futures. My family had, and still has, shame and embarrassment regarding my family members who were in jail and I see that as just one more reason they did not get out of the cycle of returning again and again. When someone feels powerless and desperate, that means they have no one to ask for help, no support network, no family. A person without their family is scared and lonely and afraid to return to their loved ones because of the shame, which then starts the cycle of incarceration all over again. When I visited my family members, they told me they did not think of their futures the same way they did before prison because now everything would be tinged by these bad decisions they made. It felt hopeless to try and create a life for themselves like they had imagined when they were younger.

If you dislike the fact that the Unites States puts millions of dollars every year into prisons, into health care for these people, into clothes and food for them, then you should help create an environment in which people do not feel powerless and desperate against those in power. Do you want your tax money to go towards feeding some child molester? If not, then maybe you should think of how that person came to do the things they did, how they felt and more importantly, how we can help those being released from prison not find themselves right back in it.