Not very long ago I worked as a medical professional in a couple of our prisons in Pennsylvania. It was, to say the least, one of the most depressing vocational experiences I have ever had. I can state without hesitation that these places are the most dis-spiriting, the most de-humanizing environments that I have ever been in. It is a blatant untruth to speak of these places as experiences in rehabilitation. Anyone who has ever been in one of these facilities will not escape the impression that the culture of our prisons is in essence self-perpetuating. The prison experience as it is results for the most part not in a “correctional” outcome, but in the kind of broken person who will keep going back.
Human Rights Watch in a report in December 2013 has this to say about prison and detention conditions in the USA:
“Prisoners and detainees in many local, state and federal facilities, including those run by private contractors, confront conditions that are abusive, degrading and dangerous. Soaring prison populations due to harsh sentencing laws—which legislators have been reluctant to change—and immigrant detention policies coupled with tight budgets have left governments unwilling to make the investments in staff and resources necessary to ensure safe and humane conditions of confinement. Such failures violate the human rights of all persons deprived of their liberty to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
One of the foundational underpinnings of our ever-evolving civility is a belief in the inherent dignity of every person. It is this belief that guides our morality. It is what rationalizes our prohibition against discrimination in all its forms. A belief in the inherent dignity of the human person prohibits discrimination based on age, or gender, or race, or national origin. It is what has led us to insist on treating persons with disabilities as deserving of the right to life and liberty, and all the facilities that go with those rights. It is what makes us legislate against cruel and unusual punishment for those who violate the laws of our society, no matter how gross their transgressions. And so we must ask why it is that we are creating the conditions described by Human Rights Watch. A cursory look at the evidence may in fact lead one to conclusions that are not hopeful for our society.
In an economic culture that is intent on culling a profit out of every human circumstance, prisons are designed to be necessarily self-perpetuating. The idea is to keep themselves optimally occupied in order to maximize profits for those who now invest in them. Yes, prisons have become business opportunities. Some people speak of prisoners as “animals” and prisons are designed to make sure they remain as such. In truth I have come to believe that the recidivism that we complain so much about is in fact a desired outcome of those who operate these dens of human degradation.