About Me


Powered by Blogger.
Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Purpose of Prisons

Recently, the state legislature in Indiana cut funding for a program paying for prisoners to receive a college education while incarcerated. On the surface it might seem that purpose of this decision was to save money in the state budget. It looked bad politically to give something to prisoners when so many others were suffering from other program cuts. From a political standpoint this decision must have seemed like a no-brainer.

Yet, however politically savvy this decision might prove to be, it will likely prove to be fiscally irresponsible. Incarceration is terribly expensive to taxpayers, and any program that reduces repeat offenses is both a social and economic good (in that our society gets a productive member), and cost effective from a state budget perspective in that taxpayers will not have to pay to incarcerate the prisoner again. Everybody wins!

But as a society, we have decided that the purpose of prisons is not to make our society better. The purpose is not security, not restitution, not rehabilitation, not restoration, not helping prisoners become and asset to our collective social well being. The purpose is punishment. And in a society that believes, first and foremost, in the punishment of prisoners, paying for their education is a bad idea.

Such a punishment system is irrational, of course. It serves no socially productive purpose. When a prisoner "does time" to pay her or his debt to society, it does me no good at all. Someone simply languishing in prison doesn't pay anything to me. In fact, as a taxpayer I have to pay. It's a lose-lose proposition.

To be sure, some people may not live safely in society, and need to be incarcerated for the good of all. But this is different than punishment. Some have argued that punishment acts as a deterrent. This may be, but the language we use suggests otherwise. Our language suggests that punishment is an end in and of itself, not a means to a greater good. The purpose of prisons is punishment for the sake of punishment.

My best guess is that the punishment theme in our society is a vestige of the Roman penal system. If we read the scriptures with care, we see instances of punishment, but the overall thrust of biblical justice is otherwise. Unfortunately we project Roman understandings back on the scriptures and see punishment when none is there.


beth bontrager said...

Having worked for an organization which focused its efforts on rehabilitation of ex-offenders, as well as providing life skills training and other educational opportunities for offenders in CA State Penetentiaries and County facilities, I believe that incarceration as punishment is not the answer. Justice is served by helping individuals to recognize opportunities to develop themselves personally and professionally and to provide them with those opportunities. Money spent that way is, in the long run, an investment in people who will contribute to society.

When Phil disciplines the boys for an infraction, he always provides them with a "way out", a means to earn back a lost privilege or activity. This attitude is one of justice, I believe, not one of punitive action. I am learning from Phil how discipline is a means to grow and learn not simply a means for punishment.

Dan Steiner said...

Amen to the blog and the comment. There are many costs to our present justice system, tax dollars but most of all wasted lives and innocent children and spouses who are punished right along with the prisoner!

Anonymous said...

This needs a wider circulation. How about an article to our newspapers---Goshen News, Elkhart Truth, South Bend Tribune etc.? As one who has been a part of the Jail Sisters, I have seen the need for more access to various means of rehabilitation. Certainly, education is one that brings long term change in a variety of ways.

Martin Lehman said...

I agree that this should receive wider circulation. In addition to what is listed by anonymous, I would like to post it on my personal website.

Phyllis said...

Amen, Phil. And, Amen to the comments as well!

Ann Hostetler said...

Can we do anything about this unjust and short-sighted decision?

Phil Waite said...

Ann,I'm glad you asked. A small group of people, including some CMCers, are exploring the possibility of Goshen College playing a role in addressing this concern. The conversations are at a nascent stage, but this is a potentially exciting and hopeful development.