The United States of America has more prisoners than any other country in the world, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and more people in its local jails than Russia does in its entire prison system.
With countless able bodies sitting in cells across the country, a fraction of which performs little more than relatively frivolous community service work, the undeniable fact is that there must be a better way to handle perpetrators of the law. With this inefficiency in the corrections system that currently exists, society would benefit from an economic change, utilizing prisoners to harvest growth allowing for society to reap the benefits that are produced.
Over the last thirty five years, prison population has grown an unsettling 400 percent, leaving over two million Americans behind bars, detached from society and unable to be active, positive contributors to the economy. If the United States would harness the potential economic output that lies within its incarcerated people, the economic and accounting costs wasted on prison systems would dissolve, leaving the convicted with a true purpose to benefit the capitalist state from which they would have previously been shunned. Now, this goal can only be achieved in a system designed to rebuild the troubled and to correct their past wrongs, thus propelling them to a future of success and rehabilitation. This is why our current system must be turned on its head.
While there would be slight variations and necessary adjustments would be made along the way, the United States should model their prison system after that of Norway with the emphasis on “restorative justice.” With this system, prisoners are viewed as people who have made mistakes and will improve themselves while serving time, staying away from unnecessarily lengthy sentences.
The culture change would have to be massive, and the United States citizens would need to stop viewing prison time as payback and revenge, but rather a constructive period for personal growth and rebirth. One specific policy change that would need to happen would be eliminating convicts’ barriers to entry for becoming contributing workers in the economy. Currently, convicts are ineligible for welfare, student loans, public housing, and food stamps.
This banishment from access to the most basic of privileges that United States citizens are offered highlights the unjust nature of today’s prison system. This simply promotes a cycle of crime, encouraging past criminals to enter the black market, where they can earn larger quantities of untaxed capital. The opportunity cost of performing these illegal actions to make money is lowered immensely when normal costs of living and amenities are risen via government implemented laws and restrictions. In other words, ex cons are incentivized to take the risk of entering the black market because the challenges they face of not being hired and not qualifying for previously stated benefits prevent them from earning enough money to support themselves and their families through legal means. This easily fixable issue clearly perpetuates crime and violence in America.
Along with legally making life more integrable, the structure of prisons themselves can be changed to help prepare inmates for a normal life after prison. With an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment, prisoners would be able to reenter society with more ease and grace than they currently do. Statistics from the Bureau of Justice report that 77 percent of released state prisoners were rearrested within five years of returning to society. Programs can be implemented in prisons that help prepare its inmates for success with career tips, mock interviews, skill workshops, and other therapeutic programs for rehabilitation. When one thinks of prisons, he or she immediately associates them with dark, grey, oppressive places filled with violence and cold, metal bars. The US should follow Norway and change this, modeling prison life after real world living situations. Bastoy prison governor, Arne Wilson, explains, “The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals.”
These internal adjustments will drastically change the outside world from which prisoners are now being denied. While there are many ways for a new influx of workers to stimulate the economy, there are also many who would argue it would only further unemployment, restarting the cycle of crime. This is a fair and logical refute to a reformed prison system, but there are ways to avoid such economic downfalls. First, as controversial as the issue is, illegal immigration would have to be addressed. No current immigrants would need to be dispelled from the United States, but steps would need to be made to control the number of new, undocumented people from entering to preserve jobs for the people leaving prisons, reentering the workforce. To clarify, immigration should by no means be suspended, rather further controlled to ensure stability and clarity of population and the immigration situation. Even with this step, however, many jobs would still need to be created, and the government can step in to help kickstart this necessary part of resolving the prison issue in the US.
Ideally, the skills that the incarcerated learn in their reformed prison will be able to be directly applied to the real world upon re entrance. Whether the government creates jobs to improve our country’s infrastructure, or start programs to incentivize currently existing corporations to hire the rehabilitated criminals, this step makes all of the difference between a continued cycle of harmful behavior and tangible, economic growth. The benefits that would come from this reformation would be vast and complex. The economy would be filled with newly trained workers, boosting business and stimulating trade. The quality of life in the United States would improve, with perpetually impoverished locations rising out of the cycle of crime and violence from the educational and rehabilitative justice system’s impact on its residents. Prisons would close down, which can be transformed into hotels and other attractive buildings as done in Norway, creating living situations and potential business locations. Last, but surely not least, the United States can finally begin to end its growing identity of a place of crime and imprisonment, and it can regress to a country of equal opportunity and liberty.