Is the purpose of prison to punish or to reform?
There are disturbing trends across the world that suggests prisons have become warehouses of punishment and despair that violate the basic terms of human dignity. Not a lot of good is coming into prisons or leaving prisons on parole.
This week’s New York Times reported alarming rises in rates of incarceration on both the state and federal level for Blacks and immigrants:
About one in every 31 adults in the United States was in prison, in jail or on supervised release at the end of last year, the Department of Justice reported yesterday.
An estimated 2.38 million people were incarcerated in state and federal facilities, an increase of 2.8 percent over 2005, while a record 5 million people were on parole or probation, an increase of 1.8 percent. Immigration detention facilities had the greatest growth rate last year. The number of people held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities grew 43 percent, to 14,482 from 10,104.
The data reflect deep racial disparities in the nation’s correctional institutions, with a record 905,600 African-American inmates in prisons and state and local jails. In several states, incarceration rates for blacks were more than 10 times the rate of whites. In Iowa, for example, blacks were imprisoned at 13.6 times the rate of whites, according to an analysis of the data by the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.
In Brazil, the rape of a 15-year-old girl who was imprisoned in the men’s prison is creating outrage over her violation:
It was at Abaetetuba, in the northeastern state of Para on the fringes of the Amazon, that a 15-year-old girl arrested on suspicion of petty theft was illegally placed among 34 male inmates in late October. For 26 days they treated her as their plaything, raping and torturing her repeatedly.
Sometimes she traded sex for food; other times, she was simply raped, federal investigators here said. The police in the jail did more than turn their backs on the violence. They shaved her head with a knife to make her look more like a boy, investigators said, and now are blaming her for lying about her age….
Women make up only 5 percent of Brazil’s prison population, but the number is growing. States have not built enough jails and prisons with separate facilities for women, even though federal law requires such separation.
The BBC reports an opposite trend in Australia where justice was not just delayed but denied in the matter of the rape of a 10-year-old girl and a judge’s refusal to jail nine Aborigine males who confessed to the crime:
If that girl had have been a white child living in suburban Brisbane there is no way that nine defendants would have walked out of the court. So we just immediately saw it as some element of racism in there, which we were appalled about. There’s very little about this case that does not draw outrage – right from the Department of Child Safety’s handling of this young girl’s life… to the judge and the prosecutor… He didn’t even ask for a custodial sentence.
Have prisons failed us? Or is the system of justice irrevocably broken? Must we demand a return to a rougher “Wild West” system of law and order where Sheriffs and their posses — instead of judges and juries
— mete out the will of the community without the possibility of parole?