Humane Prisons: A Call for Decency in Conservative Times

By Johnson, Robert | Corrections Today, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Humane Prisons: A Call for Decency in Conservative Times


Johnson, Robert, Corrections Today


Americans sink a lot of money into prisons these days, and they want a return on their investment. National opinion surveys routinely show that most Americans want prisons to punish and reform criminals, thereby doing justice and reducing crime. The popular view that criminals should take their medicine (punishment), get well (with the help of correctional programs) and then move on to law-abiding lives shows a wisdom that belies the angry conservative sentiments we hear about in the media.

Prisons are, first and foremost, settings of punishment where criminals are sent to serve hard time for the harms they've done. The lives of inmates are mostly lives of deprivation and pain. Though some offenders are embittered and made more dangerous by imprisonment, confinement need not be a destructive experience. The mainstream of public opinion is correct in supposing that hard time can be constructive time - that decent prisons provide a rehearsal for responsible living in the free world (Johnson 1996).

It is a measure of our conservative times that the very notion of a decent prison seems naive. Today, among a vocal and influential minority, the term "hard time" has become a euphemism for harsh - even brutal - prisons and a clarion call for gratuitous suffering through the restriction of recreation, the imposition of more cell time and even the escalation of the pace of executions and reinvention of such degrading practices as the chain gang. In many ways, we are attempting to roll back prison history - a history that is in no small measure one of modest but important efforts to develop humane prisons.

Attempts to make hard time harder amount to political rhetoric. Few restrictive proposals have been implemented, though no doubt more will be put in place over the coming years. These proposals are troubling because they are mean-spirited and wrong-headed. Inmates are not asked to trade off creature comforts for correctional programs - television time for program time; barbells and basketballs for computers and books. Instead, programs are to be thrown out with such luxuries as regular exercise and daily showers.

If brutal prisons deterred, one might well support them. But the futility of inhumane punishments is a matter of long historical record. The experience of abuse, on the streets and in prisons, renders people less, not more, capable of managing their lives. To deter criminals, we must discourage crime and encourage conventional living. We must inspire fear of punishment while providing options for noncriminal living. Fear alone never is enough to deter crime; the likely result is a cornered and desperate criminal who is a profound danger to society. Sending offenders to decent prisons is not only the humane thing to do, it is the effective thing to do because it can promote rehabilitation.

Much of today's get-tough mania is the product of misguided nostalgia. Politicians in Mississippi recently bemoaned the passing of the days when convicts "smelled like convicts" because they didn't have the privilege of regular showers (Nossiter 1994). These sentiments appear to be shared by politicians in states as disparate as North Carolina, Virginia and California (Baker 1995).

Some politicians favor the return of chain gangs, and indeed chain gangs have emerged in Alabama, Florida and Arizona in a limited form. Once again, our political leaders appear to have forgotten the real nature of the chain gangs that have traversed many of our southern and western states over the years. The smell of slavery always was a feature of these grotesque operations. So, too, was the smell of death; death rates on chain gangs were incredibly high (Sellin 1976). No one mentions dead black men and women convicts today when they applaud the rebirth of chain gangs, hailing them as perhaps the ultimate antidote to today's alleged country club prisons.

It is against the backdrop of country club prisons and soft time that some citizens and politicians raise their voices in favor of hard time and a dramatic end to the supposed coddling of inmates.

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Humane Prisons: A Call for Decency in Conservative Times
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