Many issues confront criminal justice and prison reformers, some of them relatively futile. Today, reform-minded people are appalled at the racial and wealth disparities at each juncture leading to the end result of incarceration. The fate of convicted felons is a New Jim Crow regime, a pariah class, wherein convicted felons and their families are disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. The driver of the New Jim Crow is often considered institutional racism, racism working within a supposedly colorblind society. Institutional racism is tough to identify with precision.
The nature of our criminal justice system defies attempts to abolish group outcomes. Offenders are judged as individuals, not as a group. Each individual stands on their own case. Thus, it is very difficult to change the composition of an entire large group when each individual was selected for inclusion based upon individual circumstances, behavior, prosecution, evidence, crime, laws, defense, prosecutor, plea bargain, jury, judge, correctional decision and appeal.
Efforts to eliminate the huge racial disparities in America’s prison population are futile in other ways. How much effort should we exert to make fair a punishment method that doesn’t work? Recidivism and crime rates usually prove the ineffectiveness of incarceration, especially now that most prisoners do not perform hard labor. Making incarceration racially non-discriminatory does not change the negative outcomes for those sent to prison or we who pay the massive expenses and social costs. Sending people to prison harms society and the prisoners themselves. We will never succeed by making a failed system of correction “fair.” Failed systems are inherently unfair.
An issue exists concerning the privatization of prisons. This merely debates whether the isolating and warehousing functions of prison should be carried on by private or public means. The experience of the prisoner is relatively unaffected. Much less interest is shown in the privatization that would make a difference: hard labor for private employers. A debate over how to fail is not productive.
The length of prison sentences is open to debate, too. Studies show that increasing the length of prison sentences has relatively little deterrent value. Longer sentences generally equate to worse personal outcomes for offenders. How much failure is enough?
Solitary confinement is debated because it is known to produce prisoner insanity, but correctional officials need this sanction for security reasons, to protect vulnerable prisoners and punish misbehaving prisoners. Isolating offenders from schools, jobs, marriages, families, communities and religious groups usually harms the offender and those left behind. This isolation starts the first time a student is suspended or expelled from school. How much destructive isolation is warranted?
Progressive prison reformers 100 years ago wrote that to be successful, prisons must be self-sustaining with the hard labor of prisoners. Governments today create detention and incarceration systems, eventually learn of their failures, but then do not want to invest in successful outcomes or readily institute the changes necessary to thoroughly reform prisons. This political and social dynamic is not likely to change given the power of law-abiding society and the weakness of prisoners. Changes must make things better for law-abiding people.
The ultimate destiny of many offenders can best be provided with means other than incarceration as we now know it. True incorrigibles need to stay in prison and be put to work… or executed. Debates that do not help change the ultimate experience of punishment are doomed to some measure of futility. Although our society has gradually eliminated outcomes other than incarceration, abandoned methods must now be brought out of retirement, tested, improved and instituted in place of our failed social experiment of locking people up in cages and letting them sit idle most of the time. Methods that deserve another look include hard labor, judicial corporal punishment and the wearing of metallic collars, with or without electronic enhancements.