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Editorial: Fixing the prison problem

The startling statistics of the prison problem in the United States are often heard through mainstream media. Though the U.S. prison population has been declining for the past several years, the United States still has more prisoners than any other country, even China. The cost of maintaining our federal prison population has more than doubled — from $12 billion to $24.6 billion — over the past decade, and no resolution to this growing fiscal drag on the federal budget readily presents itself. Of course, this does not scratch the surface of the moral, ethical and humanitarian issues associated with the treatment of the 2.3 million prisoners and their access to justice.

Beyond the questionable morality of prison, the numbers show that prison doesn’t work. The Bureau of Justice Statistics released statistics showing that in 30 states in 2010, three in four former prisoners are arrested again within five years of their release. If the goal of prisons is to reduce crime, recidivism rates show failure. Thus, an important first step in improving the prison system would be recognizing the difference between punishment and restraint or confinement. For violent, conspiratorial prisoners, prolonged incarceration should be on the table. But for the vast majority of nonviolent offenders, such restraint is not necessary. Many people argue that punishment is necessary, but “punishment” in the traditional sense of inflicting some type of pain to teach someone a lesson has been proven ineffective by both recidivism rates and psychological research studies on prisoners and parenting. Even B.F. Skinner, a father of the behaviorist movement in psychology, said he hated punishment because it did not teach people what to do but rather instilled anger and frustration.

Perhaps a prison system could be potentially justified if it were restructured to emphasize rehabilitation, rather than acting as a punitive box for those found guilty. McKean Federal Correctional Institute in Lewis Run, Pennsylvania, has classrooms, chapels, recreation facilities and cramped but orderly cellblocks. McKean is a product of a federal campaign that seeks to drastically change the face of U.S. prisons, focusing far more on the importance of rehabilitation in lowering recidivism rates and reducing the number of prisoners in the country. Although prisons like McKean face widespread criticism as going “soft” on crime and even evoking “country club” images, McKean has proven to be, in many ways, the country’s most successful medium-security prison: Between 2005 and 2011, only nine assaults occurred within its walls — the same number of assaults that many prisons face in a week. According to McKean’s former warden, Dennis Luther, the prison’s tremendous success comes from its founding principle that an “unconditional respect for prisoners” as people leads to a positive, rehabilitating culture, in which prisoners have a stake in the prison as a community and ultimately re-enter the world as engaged community members, the Atlantic reported in 2011. This ideology takes shape in various recreation and education programs that hold prisoners to high standards of behavior. While specific recidivism rates for McKean have not yet been compiled, numerous expansive studies have shown a deep connection between education programs and lowered recidivism rates.

While a widespread overhaul of federal prisons modeled after McKean may be fiscally unfeasible at this point, some type of nationwide system of reform based on the above stated principles is necessary. Not only would it improve assimilation of released prisoners, but a more efficient system, even at a higher cost, would in the long run likely reduce spending through shorter sentences and reduced incarceration rates from recidivists. Reforming the prison system is a daunting task given the millions of people and billions of dollars involved, but the potential budgetary savings and lives returned are gains that cannot be overlooked.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Alexander Kaplan ’15 and James Rattner ’15, and its members, Natasha Bluth ’15, Manuel Contreras ’16, Baxter DiFabrizio ’15, Manuel Monti-Nussbaum ’15, Katherine Pollock ’16 and Himani Sood ’15. Send comments to



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