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Today’s topic is quite the layered one, and there isn’t just one answer. The question is also loaded with assumptions, and leads to even more questions. Do only bad people go to prison? Does our society give proper punishment to crimes? Should we be putting non-violent offenders behind bars in the first place?
I am going to answer this question from a personal perspective. I will also try to include stories from other former inmates. Firstly, it is necessary to understand my background. I am a 42-year-old white female who was sentenced to two 15-year prison sentences after a conviction of possession of marijuana and cultivation of marijuana.
Before the arrest and sentencing, I had never been in trouble in my life. I had two speeding tickets on my record from when I was younger. They were both for going 45 in a 30 because there was a speed trap outside of the apartment complex where I lived.
I was raised in a middle-class family, graduated at the top of my class in high school, and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas. After earning my degree, I worked in TV and radio for years before switching to a sales job with a Fortune 500 company.
I regularly earned a good income, paid my taxes, had wonderful friends, and was part of an amazing family. I have to be honest, when I was put in prison I didn’t believe that I belonged there, and never once did I think I was a bad person or a danger to society.
Of course, no one is perfect and everyone has areas in their life they can improve. But, I never had the mindset that prison could change me for the better. It was simply a barbaric punishment for a “crime” that wasn’t a crime in other states.
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
When I was sentenced to prison, I remember being scared about the people I would be living with. The only thing I “knew” about prison was what I saw on TV and in movies, so I went in thinking that everyone was a violent gang member who would shank you if you looked at them wrong.
Before my incarceration, I didn’t give much thought to the criminal justice system or the prison system, and I am ashamed to say that I pretty much believed that people who are in prison deserve to be there.
When I got to prison, I discovered that most guards had that same belief because many of them would often tell the inmates: “If you don’t like the rules, it’s not my fault. You shouldn’t have come to prison.”
During my four years behind bars, I came to realize that not only is our society putting way too many people behind bars, but we have locked up some pretty amazing individuals. The majority of people in prison are just regular people who made a bad choice in the heat of the moment, got involved with the wrong group of friends or wrong romantic partner, were victims of abuse, had mental health issues, and/or had a problem with addiction.
It shocked me to discover that an incredibly small number of people in prison are actually horrible humans who are truly a threat to society. This might be surprising to hear, but even people who committed murder mostly did so because they felt threatened in some way, and they believed that was their only option.
Do violent criminals deserve to be punished? Of course. But, I just wanted to make it clear that prisons aren’t full of violent, evil serial killers and rapists who used to roam the streets looking for people to harm before they were caught.
Don’t get me wrong. There are people in the world who should legitimately be locked up and segregated from society, but it’s not as common as you might think.
I’m sure many of you are asking: “If so many inmates in prison are good people then why is the recidivism rate so high?” It’s a great question, and it’s definitely something we need to talk about as a society.
I’m not going to dive into this complex topic too deeply, but we do have a post on Prison Insight about recidivism that is a must read. If you aren’t familiar with the term, recidivism is the return rate of former inmates to prison. In other words, it’s the rate of inmates who are released from prison and then end up going back because they get arrested again for committing another crime.
According to a study from the Bureau of Justice, within the first year of being released from prison, 43.1 percent of former inmates are arrested again. To make things worse, 83.4 percent of former inmates are arrested again within nine years of their release.
Those numbers prove that people behind bars don’t change for the better after getting out, right? Actually, that’s not the case. Many people want to improve their life when they get out and don’t want to go back, but our society sets them up for complete and total failure.
Most inmates leave prison with about 20 bucks in their pocket and a box of their prison property. If they don’t have a support system of friends and family who can help them out, they don’t have a lot of housing options other than a halfway house or shelter.
Getting a job can be quite a challenge when you are a felon, not to mention finding a landlord who is willing to rent to you. Without a proper support system and people who are willing to work with you when it comes to employment and housing, many inmates are forced back into a criminal life just to survive.
A really good example of this is in the Netflix show Orange Is The New Black. You might remember that when Piper is released from prison, her dad helps her get a job and her brother gives her a place to stay. This allows her to plan her life post-prison and be successful without going back.
On the other hand, when Taystee is released she has nowhere to go but to her cousin’s house and has to sleep on the floor. She had to go back to dealing drugs in order to earn her keep, and that put her back in prison just a few short weeks after she got out.
The simple answer to this question is yes. Most do change for the better because they can earn their GED or learn vocational skills to help them get a job, and the vast majority don’t want to go back after they are released.
However, a long prison sentence can be extremely damaging to an inmate’s mental health.
In a US government report on the psychological impact of imprisonment, social psychologist Craig Haneyㅡwho collaborated with Philip Zimbardo on the infamous Stanford Prison Experimentㅡwas extremely blunt about the impact of being in prison: “Few people are completely unchanged or unscathed by the experience.”
After years behind bars, people aren’t the same when they are released, and many say that it “changes people to the core.” As the study points out, people are forced to acclimate to prison in order to survive, but it doesn’t do them much good when they’re released.
“Key features of the prison environment that are likely to lead to personality change include the chronic loss of free choice, lack of privacy, daily stigma, frequent fear, need to wear a constant mask of invulnerability and emotional flatness (to avoid exploitation by others), and the requirement, day after day, to follow externally imposed stringent rules and routines,” writes Christian Jarrett of BBC Future.
Yes, prison changes you in many ways. And losing your freedom leads most people to want to change for the betterㅡif they needed to change. But, I would argue that the majority of people who are behind bars shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Should we put non-violent offenders in prison? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: How prison changes people https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180430-the-unexpected-ways-prison-time-changes-people
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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