The moment you propose the argument that prisons should be tougher in the United States, the immediate response for some is that by doing so, we are stepping backwards in time; that we are America and as such, we treat people with respect and dignity. I have never suggested that people should not be treated with dignity, even if they are in prison for a severe felony, but our prisons are far too comfortable and posh and many prisoners have a much better life inside of prisons than they do outside. Free cable, access to educational opportunities and psychiatric counseling (which would cost you or I thousands of dollars) and other amenities all make prison—easy. Aside from doing the time and not having complete freedom, life is not so bad in American prisons. These are criminals, some of whom have committed heinous, violent crimes. Where did we lose sight of that when we decided they deserved cable and better weight rooms than I have at my own expensive private gym?
The U.S. penitentiary system appears to be inadequate to respond to current realities as each year the number of prisoners increases for crimes across the spectrum. New prisons are being built each year and more burdens are placed on the shoulders of American taxpayers. The rising costs of prisons are attributable primarily to the bells and whistles and other luxuries that prisoners in other countries around the world cannot enjoy as they do in the USA. In order to reduce crime in the country, we need tougher prisons. This is not to say that we need to resort to desolate and awful conditions that are unsanitary or unsafe, rather this is to suggest that there are far too many comforts for criminals, many of whom have caused significant amounts of suffering in their victims (unless they are non-violent drug offenders, but don’t even get me started on that…)
The modern day prisons in the USA provide their inmates with all the possible opportunities to live, learn, study, work and entertain themselves with the freedom of leaving the place being the only constraint, thus making it almost easy to forget about their criminal status or their crimes as they go to college online, get their GED, or watch Oprah. Indeed, the prisoners have to follow the rules and regulations set in each prison, yet they can choose whether and how they want to work. The paradox is that for the average American to sustain a comfortable living it is vital to work, study, and excel. For American prisoners to get a roof above their heads it is necessary just to be in the prison—one will get food, one will get shelter, one will get drink (Young 98). While criminals should never be denied these basic features (food, drink, and shelter) no matter what crime they committed, there are limits.
The only price inmates pay is their inability to leave the place whenever needed. Also, they might not be allowed to communicate with their friends and family when they would like to do so, yet taking into account the fact that most computers in prisons have the internet, one can easily chat, send emails, post to discussion boards or communicate in other possible ways. The only other limitation prisoners deal with is, having to wear the same uniforms and really, if that’s good enough for a growing number of our public schools and almost all of our private schools, is this really any kind of punishment?
Some critics might argue that we need to be more humane and helpful, as prisoners are victims of social problems and they are not simply criminals found guilty of sometimes awful crimes, not people who should be responsible for their own actions. My response would be, why is crime growing in the country, if each year the amount spent on social programs, rehabilitation programs, prison enhancement programs, educational programs and other interventions increases? Can it be that making prisons less tough deprives them from the ‘deterrence factor’ they represent? After all, if one knows that the prison means absolutely no TV, no telephone, no comfortable bed, but only hard work from dawn until dusk, every criminal would think more than once before committing a crime. If corporal punishment were routinely used in prisons, that would make criminals fear prisons much more than new computers donated by IBM each year or soup sold by the Campbell corporation “at a discount to help improve the community via corporate involvement" (Bosworth 47).
Certainly, while making prisons tougher, one should make the judicial system more efficient and effective, simply because it does make mistakes occasionally. Unfortunately, innocent people do go to jail, where they undergo all the harsh treatment just like those who deserve it. Still, making the legal system more accurate relates to how one singles out criminals, prisons, on the other hand need to provide proper punishment, a negative reinforcement if you will. In my opinion, the prison needs to ‘break’ a person, his/her character, and past beliefs, including the idea that breaking the law can benefit him or her. The prison should make each criminal work hard, so the inmates can pay at least for their stay in prisons. The idea behind tough prisons is to produce meek individuals, who know the laws and know how to work hard to succeed (Martin 111). Instead, prisons produce tough guys who get all the attention from the girls. Hours of free time spent in the gym and decent meals make them strong, buff, and attractive. Their connections with other criminals make them influential; they can win any fight. They represent danger, they know how to steal, how to talk dirty, how to survive in any city or town. Basically, the prison produces true “males." if you will, something it is not supposed to do.
Modern day prisons should be made tougher. They should make inmates work hard. They should break the spirit of inmates, instilling a new set of values that will make them obedient to laws and American values. Currently, despite the growing spending on prisons and rehabilitation/education programs, crime rates around the nation grow. Ex-prisoners are nowadays associated with macho guys, and can probably serve as role models to other males, who want to get all the benefits (and females’ attention) and finally end up in prisons, too. It appears that making prisons scary and tough is what will make anyone think more than once before risking breaking the law.
Young, Vernetta. Women Behind Bars: Gender And Race in US Prisons. Prentice Hall, 2005.
Martin, Tom. Behind Prison Walls: The Real World of Working in Today’s Prisons. McGraw Hill, 2004.
Bosworth, Mary. The U.S. Federal Prison System. New York: Random House, 2004.