Inside/Outside: What Prisons Say About Our Social Values

The incarceration rate of the UK – around 145 people per every 100,000 – is about the midpoint worldwide. The United States, for example, incarcerates their citizens at a much higher rate. However, with a prison population that has doubled in the last 20 years, the UK has the most inmates of any country in western Europe.

Furthermore, its penal system is not only bloated but also ineffective and incredibly expensive. According to a January 2016 report published by the Ministry of Justice, adult offenders have a recidivism rate of nearly 46%. And the average cost per prisoner per year is around £35,000, more than a year at Eton or Oxbridge. These numbers are bleak, and they reveal just how broken this system is.

Prisoners are by definition society’s personae non gratae. But how we treat our prisoners reveals more about the society on the outside than it does about the people on the inside.

Consider Japan. The country is one of the world’s least criminal, with an incarceration rate of around 49 people per 100,000. Its penal system is a marvel compared to prisons in the UK: There are no problems with overcrowding; assault and rape are rare; drugs and weapons are effectively banned. However, the inmate population still manages to expose the country’s vulnerabilities.

The aging of Japan is a well reported phenomenon. Today, more than 25% of the country is over 65 years old; this number will only increase. Meanwhile, the population is shrinking and immigration remains low. There are not enough nurses, care workers, and young relatives to attend to the elderly. This reality extends to the country’s prisons. The crime rate amongst senior citizens has quadrupled in the past two decades, and the elderly now comprises nearly 20% of Japan’s prison population. Many of these prisoners are disabled and lack family or financial support. Upon release, many quickly return to prison, where they will be fed and cared for. Ironically, prison represents a safe space for many older Japanese people, who feel forgotten and discarded on the outside.

Likewise, the United States’ penal system is built on the country’s social fault lines. Unsurprisingly, its foundation is unstable. Many politicians and civil rights activists are currently calling for an end to the era of mass incarceration.

The US incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world, including Russia and China. This is a fairly recent phenomenon and is largely attributable to the War on Drugs, which was launched in the 1980s. Since then, the American prison population has quadrupled, mostly thanks to trumped up drug charges. As in the UK, prisoners cost taxpayers an obscene amount of money and reoffend at an alarmingly high rate. (In fact, the recidivism rate in the US is much higher: 68% compared to Britain’s 46%.)

What sets the American penal system apart, though, is its racial disparities. African-American men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men. One in three African-American men will be incarcerated at some point in his life, mostly likely on drug charges. Though white Americans are actually more likely to use and abuse drugs, they are significantly less likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for doing so. This imbalance fits into a long history of racial injustice in the US. Since the end of the Civil War, when slavery was abolished, African-Americans have been criminalized by a justice system that was originally built to oppress them. From chain gangs to penal labour, lynching to gangsta rap, blackness and criminality have long been conflated in the US. Looking at the country’s prison population, this sordid history is impossible to ignore.

Wherever one goes, it seems as though prisons are synonymous with social dysfunction. However, there is one country that has turned incarceration into a positive process, one that helps to rehabilitate criminals so that they may contribute to society after they have served their time. In the long run, this not only helps to deter future crime but also helps to lower the costs of incarceration.

There is no death penalty and no life sentences in Norway. The maximum sentence for most crimes is 21 years. The Norwegian Correctional Service makes a reintegration guarantee to all inmates, working with other government agencies to help secure housing, work, and a support system for them ahead of their release. The country’s social safety net provides health care, education, and a pension for all of its citizens, including ex-cons. No doubt in large part because of these practices, the country’s recidivism rate is 20%.

The unofficial motto of the Norwegian penal system is “better out than in,” which speaks to the country’s rehabilitative ethos. Their prisons operate according to a concept called restorative justice. By providing counselling, life skills training, and effective treatment for mental illness, Norway’s prisons are able to address the fallout from a crime rather than just aimlessly punish the criminal. As a result, prisoners learn how to behave in a law-abiding and sociable way. One prisoner told The Guardian of his experience: “It’s like living in a village, a community. Everybody has to work. But we have free time so we can do some fishing, or in summer we can swim off the beach. We know we are prisoners, but here we feel like people.” Treated humanely, they are more likely to follow suit and treat others similarly upon release.

Crime is a constant of society, wherever we may be. But how we address it varies from place to place, revealing our social values along the way. We may endorse rehabilitation or revenge, restorative justice or racist policing. But at a moment when the futility of our penal system is impossible to ignore, we must look to those countries that are doing a better job and try to follow suit. By demanding a more humane, and thus more effective, criminal justice system, we can make society safer for

Author: Emma Freer

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