Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Prisons and after Prison

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Prisons and after Prison

Article excerpt

JOHN H. LAUB & ROBERT J. SAMPSON, SHARED BEGINNINGS, DIVERGENT LIVES: DELINQUENT BOYS TO AGE 70 (Harvard University Press, 2003). 338 PP.

LORNA A. RHODES, TOTAL CONFINEMENT, MADNESS AND REASON IN THE MAXIMUM SECURITY PRISON (University of California Press, 2004). 315 PP.

PRISONERS ONCE REMOVED: THE IMPACT OF INCARCERATION AND REENTRY ON CHILDREN, FAMILIES, AND COMMUNITIES (Jeremy Travis & Michael Waul, eds., 2003). 396 PP.

ALAN ELSNER, GATES OF INJUSTICE: THE CRISIS OF AMERICA'S PRISONS (Prentice Hall, 2004). 264 PP.

INTRODUCTION

I was in court the other day, waiting for my client's case to be called, when a middle-aged man was brought out from the lock-up to face the judge. I took notice because of the fact that he was older than the usual pretrial detainee in the Cook County Jail. His lawyer began to argue for a reduction in bail. During the course of the hearing before the judge, it was revealed that this man allegedly committed three armed robberies in 1990. After being released on bail in 1990, he failed to return to court, probably because he was facing a minimum six years in the penitentiary for his crimes (and probably longer because judges in Cook County do not always impose minimum sentences for crimes of violence). Instead, he lived in his neighborhood, got married, had children, had a series of good jobs, and was never again arrested. The warrant issued in 1990 "caught" him the day before his court appearance when he was picked up for speeding. I wondered to myself--and out loud to the student who was with me--what would this man's life course have been had he been incarcerated at age nineteen, when the crimes that brought him to court were committed? If he had been imprisoned and released after spending six years in the penitentiary, would he have married? Would he have had children? Would he have been able to stay out of trouble? If incarcerated at age nineteen, how much would his incarceration in 1990, and his probable succeeding incarcerations have cost the taxpayer? Would this man have been peaceful or dangerous had he spent time in prison?

The books reviewed in this essay suggest that society and the middle aged man I saw in court are both better off because he avoided prison. This does not mean that I condone armed robbery or bail jumping--I do not. People who commit crimes deserve punishment commensurate with their culpability. But the conditions and effects of incarceration in our country's prison system, presented clearly and forcefully in the books reviewed in this essay, demonstrates that a young man sent to a prison in the United States has a poor prognosis for becoming a productive member of society upon release. This is because prisons are overcrowded as a result of the war on drugs and increasingly lengthy sentences. They are brutal places where conditions of confinement and inmate on inmate violence inflict lasting and debilitating psychological damage. Finally, we ignore the fact that the vast majority of prisoners will eventually be released and that, instead of preparing them for release, we send them back impaired and to neighborhoods and communities ill-prepared or equipped to meet their needs.

These are not new or original observations. The evidence and the arguments against our nation's policy of mass incarceration have been in the forefront of news and policy debates for years. Virtually no one argues that we should be satisfied with the conditions or the performance of our prison system or that the inhumane conditions described by prisoners, journalists, and researchers do not exist. Yet conditions within prisons that shock us all (overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, inmate on inmate violence and sexual assault, guard on inmate violence, inmate on guard violence) continue to exist, virtually unchallenged, leaving prisoners, prison administrators and staff, and parolees to sort it out with meager resources and with little support or commitment from the politicians or from the citizens who have led the charge for increasingly high rates of incarceration. …

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