Column: Punishment in American prisons gets poor results

Rehabilitation, not punishment, is the way forward for American prisons.

Bryce Kolk is a freshman journalism major at MU. He is an opinion columnist who writes about politics for The Maneater.

American society glorifies punishment. If someone steps out of line, we’re quick to lock them away for years at a time. We’ll treat grown adults like children in the hopes that they’ll learn their lesson.

But they rarely do.

Compared globally, America has one of the highest rates of recidivism, how likely a prisoner is to relapse into criminal behavior after release.

A vast majority, 76.6 percent, of American prisoners are rearrested within five years of release, according to the National Institute of Justice. If the American prison system is meant to keep prisoners from reoffending, it’s doing a terrible job.

While American prisons are cold, dangerous places meant to break inmates, other countries have begun changing course.

Our solution may come from humble, Scandinavian Norway. Norway is leading the charge of rehabilitation by trying to emulate the outside world as much as possible.

Norwegian prisoners are given bedrooms nicer than many dorm rooms. Bar-less windows shine light on these rooms and give full view of the surrounding nature. Prisoners are given open access to kitchens with actual knives and workshops with tools. They wear everyday clothes, not orange jumpsuits. Ten inmates share a common area with a TV and an Xbox. They also have a full recording studio, where they can learn to play instruments and produce music.

“But they deserve to rot in prison,” I hear you say atop your moral high-horse. “They’re criminals!”

Who really cares, though? Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at just 20 percent. Most criminals in Norway don’t stay criminals for very long.

With fewer people reoffending, incarceration rates plummet. The Norwegian incarceration rate is just 75 in 100,000 people, compared to our 700 in 100,000 people.

We have to seriously ask ourselves what role prisons should play. As of now, American prisons only serve to foster bitterness toward the system.

Still, America isn’t Norway. Our problems are too severe to implement a Norwegian style prison-paradise immediately. We can look inside our own borders, first.

San Quentin State Prison, near San Francisco, could hold the key to reforming American prisons in the meantime.

It has an infamous history as a quintessential American prison, but today is a model for American prisons. At San Quentin, there’s a computer programming class and a newspaper, advised by professional, civilian journalists. San Quentin has college classes that inmates can take advantage of for free.

The prison offers programs in arts like painting and in life skills, like nonviolent communication and anger management.

Many prisoners aspire to get to get transferred to San Quentin because of the positive environment it encourages. Inmates might talk about what they’ve learned in their self improvement classes, rather than their experiences with drugs or violence.

A program in other San Francisco jails have shown promising results as well. A re-educational program with violent, male offenders reduced violence in one jail to zero for a year. Participation in the program for just four months reduced the frequency of reoffending after release by 83 percent. The program saved about $30,000 per prisoner, saving taxpayers four dollars for every one dollar spent.

American prisons, by and large, are encouraging inmates to come back.

Prisoners in America are removed from society and transplanted into sterile environments. They are oppressed by a system that views them as lesser. When they are reintroduced to society, one can only expect them to reoffend.

Our ideas of justice have to change. Prisoners are human. They need opportunities to learn, and to grow as people. This approach is proven to be effective, both at home and abroad. We need to showcase the best of society, not foster the worst.

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