Image courtesy prisoneducation.com

By Christopher Zoukis

Here at the Prison Law Blog our goal is to expose issues as they relate to prisoners’ rights, prison law, and violations of civil rights in American prisons.  Our goal is to be a hub of information so that criminal defense attorneys, politicians, and the families of prisoners have the opportunity to find out what is really occurring in the United States criminal justice system.

But why does that matter?

Why should others care about what happens to inmates — to “criminals” — after they have been convicted of a crime, sent to prison, and seemingly forgotten?

The Societal Effects of Experiences in Prison

What happens in prison affects everyone, no matter their relationship to the American criminal justice system.  Since those incarcerated are separated from the rest of society (and their experiences are insulated from society, too), it’s easy to ignore or forget about them.  This is a sad truth since their experiences in prison certainly affect everyone in America, criminal and law-abiding citizen alike.  It’s important to remember that:

  • Prisoners Are Eventually Released from Custody: According to the United States Department of Justice, as many as 650,000 prisoners or more are released from custody every year.  Every single one of those individuals will continue to affect society in some way — positively or negatively — for years, many years, to come.  In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported that as many as 95 percent of American prisoners will one day be released from correctional custody.  Finding a way to create more positive outcomes is crucial to reducing future crimes, victims, and the fiscal and social consequences of both.

  • Prisons Affect the Economy: Both prisons and prisoners have a marked effect on our local, state, and national economies.  The more inmates in prison, the more the state and national economies struggle.  In addition, prisoners that succeed after prison contribute to their local, state, and national economies, while those that struggle create further drain on them.  It’s in everyone’s best interest for prisoners to succeed.  Likewise, fighting repeat crime should revolve around the research, not around our ideals of enhanced punishments and reduced rehabilitative and educational opportunities in prisons.

  • Prisoners Return to Crime: Recidivism rates — the percentage of prisoners who return to crime following a term of incarceration — are very high, estimated at 43 to 63 percent within 3 years of their release from confinement.  Research has shown that prison education and rehabilitative programming significantly reduce recidivism rates.  This is not only backed up by literally hundreds of studies, but it is also a matter of common sense.  If you provide a person with the tools required to succeed, then they at least have the opportunity to.  If you don’t, then only the few exceptions — who must find the tools on their own — will stand a chance, and not much of one at that.

The Human Factor

People go to prison for violating the law.  That much is clear.  Their time in prison can — and in particular, positive experiences and programming (e.g., education, training, treatment, etc.) — transform them into law-abiding, valuable citizens upon their release from correction custody.  Or, this time in prison can harden them, turning even the meekest, first-time offender into a hardened, violent criminal.  Prison has the power to improve offenders, further damage them, or make absolutely no effect whatsoever — all at the same price point.

From taxes to victimization to human rights, there are many reasons that prisoners’ experiences affect every citizen in the United States.  It’s too easy to pass inmates off as though they do not matter — as though by committing a crime, they should be punished, locked away, and forgotten.  The effects of what happens inside and outside of prisons affects each inverse group.  This is regardless of if a person abides by the law or commits crimes.

The long and short of why we should care what happens in prisons is that it affects all of us as a whole.  When prisons are successful (a rare occurrence), they improve everyone’s lives — American citizen, former prisoner, and the victim that never came to be.  And when they are unsuccessful (a more regular occurrence), they harm all of us.  The question we need to be asking ourselves is if we are willing to do what it takes to make prisons successful.  And that’s a question that each of us must answer, one way or the other.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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