Blinded By Fear: Why Americans Continue to Fail at Criminal Justice Reform

Christopher Hoffman, MD

Following the deaths of 15 inmates last month, the failures of the Mississippi state justice system have become the most recent motivator for prison reform. According to Joseph Neff and Alysia Santo from the Marshall Project, the problems with Mississippi prisons include corrupt, underpaid staff, a poor guard to inmate ratio, powerful gangs, and frequent lockdowns. Of course, such cases of inhumane prison conditions are not exclusive to Mississippi. Recall — in 2019, video footage of a Brooklyn prison surfaced, revealing inmates beating on the windows to attract attention; they were out of lights, heat, and warm showers for an entire week in the middle of winter. Later in the same year, several prisons in Alabama were declared unconstitutional for violating the 8th amendment condemning “cruel and unusual punishment,” after investigators uncovered the routine occurrence of sexual assault and excessive violence toward inmates. These cases are not outliers; if anything, they speak to how negligence and lack of transparency are not only widespread problems that pervade the country, but also a structural issue that plagues the incarceration system at large. As medical professionals, it is imperative to promote the reform and reconstruction of the correctional system.

It is no secret that our prison system is in total ruin. Experts use adjectives like overcrowded, understaffed, violent, unsanitary, and even unconstitutional when reporting about our correctional facilities. In addition, prisons are expensive and do not deliver the promised results of rehabilitating inmates to eventually reintegrate into safer communities. According to an article from the Vara Institute of Justice, incarceration does little to alter crime rates, and instead diverts attention from the more effective and less costly ways to reduce and prevent crime. The fact that we spend nearly $24,000 more on inmate retention than education in the public-school system speaks volumes to our country’s priorities. Moreover, most of the money spent on these inmates go toward advancing punishment methods, even though many studies conducted by other countries like Norway have consistently shown that rehabilitation is the most efficient method for crime reduction. With such a defective system, Americans should reflect seriously on why so many of us are unconcerned about our prison system, and how acceptable it is that we have not yet demanded its complete overhaul.

The Maya Angelou quote, “when you know better, you do better,” comes to mind. We possess too much evidence to claim that we are unaware of the gravity of the problems in our justice system. And yet, despite this knowledge, we are still not doing better. Therefore, we must consider another variable unmentioned in the quote. That is emotion. Imagine this — a person comes to your home, tells you he or she was recently released from prison and asks for work. What are you feeling? Although the person has done nothing wrong, the feeling that you are experiencing is probably in the realm of fear — fear that this person is a criminal, doubt that he or she has learned to be “good” from their punishment, concern that his or her behavior has not truly changed, and anxiety that you might be the next victim. These are all valid reasons to be afraid.

However, criminal behavior is explained by far more than the mere notion that past actions predict future ones (i.e., once a criminal, always a criminal). A more realistic and humane understanding should recognize the fact that people who enter prison are not allowed to learn more adaptive ways of living, since punishment is the primary approach to corrections. Studies show that punishment is the least effective method for learning and changing behavior. It takes rehabilitation.

Twenty years ago, Norway’s “revolving door to prison” was much like that of the U.S., with a recidivism rate of about 60-70 percent. This rate decreased after focusing more on the humane treatment of inmates. They built prison facilities that look like dorms or apartments, and trained guards to be more helpful, like counselors. They treat inmates like students, providing education and counseling in a healthy environment to address the circumstances that landed them in prison. Now, their recidivism rate is down to about 20 percent. The Norwegian system is the model for restructuring our correctional system.

Unfortunately, we as a society have bought into the fear-based logic that confinement and punishment improve our collective safety and criminals cycle through prison because they cannot amount to anything else. We allow our fears to overshadow credible data and examples of more effective, less expensive correctional systems. We must gain the courage to trust the facts. As Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Let’s do better. Let’s try something different.

Christopher Hoffman is a board-certified psychiatrist and an active member of Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform. He strives to provide excellent care to individuals with mental disturbances, their families, and surrounding communities while creating greater awareness regarding insufficient services to poor and underserved communities.

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