Changing American prisons

Tala Trad, Memorial Staff Writer

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The United States incarceration rate is the lowest it has been in two decades, yet it still is the highest in the world. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Oklahoma is taking the topmost ratio within the U.S. at 1,079 people imprisoned per 100,000 people.

Due to the large sum of individuals, Oklahoma’s prisons are becoming overcrowded; most of the state’s prison budget is being used to make more room for prisoners and hire more staff and guards. This budget would be better utilized by investing in more constructive methods to slow down the frequency of men and women entering prison, beginning with criminal justice reform.

A lesser sentencing for minor non-violent drug related crime is enough to lower prison population. The most prevalent example is marijuana possession which is not worth the time in prison or money to prosecute, especially now when one considers that it is on the way to legalization in Oklahoma and in many other states. Sparing these people from being locked up long term would result in more space for major offenders and need for less guards. Overall, there would be more money left for alternate uses that will prove to be more beneficial.

In addition to these issues is the disheartening lack of support programs and rehabilitation services in prisons. Yes, they are criminals, people who have broken the laws that help society retain order, but it goes without saying that criminal behavior stems from a variety of contributing factors. Socioeconomic status, substance abuse and mental health can all play a role in creating the common criminal; in fact, most of these can be addressed outside of prison to prevent more people from going, but once they are inside they also need to be learning job skills that translate into employment once they are released. This will help individuals from returning to confinement.

There is not one straightforward way to approach prison reform. It all begins on the outside, where there are bills that provide funding mental health care and education that if advocated for can eventually be made into laws which benefit society by helping to maintain public safety. And yet, those needs aren’t being met. If the resources essential to prevent criminal behavior are not being provided outside of prisons, they at least need to be available in them to encourage convicted criminals to improve.

Educational initiatives such as GED programs, rehabilitation services for drug and alcohol abusers or treatment for mental illnesses in prison are fundamental to preventing the relapse of one’s criminal demeanor and maybe even put better people into society.
Some prisoners want to return to society as contributing citizens and recognize the lack of resources they have to do so. Incarcerated activist group such as Jailhouse Lawyers Speak laid the grounds for a nationwide prison labor strike last month upon these demands. It is unclear whether or not the strike made a direct impact, but it definitely brought to the attention the effectiveness of the American penal system.

Contact Tala Trad at [email protected].

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