Prisons in the United States

August 13th, 2015

Issues raised by the prison break in New York

In June, David Sweat and Richard Matt, both convicted murderers, escaped from the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. The weeks-long manhunt ended after police shot and killed Matt and captured Sweat alive soon after.

12 prison administrators and corrections officers have been suspended as an investigation of the escape is carried out. The FBI has opened an inquiry into activities at the prison, including possible corruption or drug dealing by prison employees. Corrections officer Gene Palmer has been arrested in connection with the escape and is accused of showing Sweat and Matt a catwalk behind their cells that they used in their escape. Prosecutors allege that Palmer may have also smuggled drill bits and saw blades into the prison inside frozen hamburger patties.

Many questions about lax security at the prison have been raised since the escape. In past years, inmates have won multiple court battles over allegations of violence and corruption by corrections officers at the facility. North Country Public Radio interviewed Gene Palmer 15 years ago in a story about Clinton Correctional Facility. At that time, Palmer discussed a complex network of rewards and punishments and sometimes close relationships between inmates and corrections officers.

Why does the United States have such high incarceration rates?

When considering the state of prisons in the United States, one of the things that is striking is how much higher our incarceration rate is compared to other countries throughout the world. The Washington Post recently verified the often-quoted statistic that while the United States has less than five percent of the world’s population, we have almost 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

Criminal justice experts offer several theories as to why this is the case. When crime rose in the United States in the 1970’s (as it did worldwide), local and state officials were much more likely to adopt “get tough” policies on crime, including lengthy sentences, than in other countries. Other countries that are similar to the United States economically and socially have a much more robust network of social services. In the United States, we rely on jails and prisons to deal with people who in other nations would be likely to be 2 provided with other care (such as people struggling with addiction, homeless people and those with mental health problems).

While crime rates have been on a steady decline in recent years, the incarceration rate has not declined as steeply. However, many of those who were imprisoned in the late 1970s under mandatory minimum sentencing are now being released. This trend, along with a growing interest by local governments in alternatives to incarceration, could cause larger declines in the prison population in the future.

One alternative program that is getting significant attention is the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) in King County, Washington. A small study of the four-year pilot project found that it reduced recidivism rates (relapse into criminal behavior) by up to 60 percent for those who participated. On random nights, some squads of officers in Seattle’s West Precinct offered the LEAD program to those they arrested for low-level offenses. Those who chose to participate were assigned case workers who could provide both immediate and long-term assistance with food, clothing, job training, stable housing and drug treatment.

Conditions in US prisons

Those who don’t have a loved one in prison can easily be unaware of what life in prison can be like. For example, portrayals of sexual assault in prison on television shows and in movies usually focus on abuse of one prisoner by another. A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Justice finds that prison employees are the accused perpetrators in half of all reports of sexual abuse in prisons and jails. Women inmates are disproportionately likely to suffer abuse. While they represent seven percent of prisoners, 33 percent of staff-on-inmate victims are women.

Sexual contact between staff and inmates is a felony in almost all states. Since guards and staff have almost complete control over the lives of inmates, state and federal laws identify any sexual contact as nonconsensual. The likelihood that prison employees will face jail time for these crimes is low, however. Less than half of allegations are taken up by prosecutors. In cases where prison employees are found guilty, agreements are often reached that require probation, fines and/or community service, but not jail time. Agreements sometimes include stipulations that if the perpetrator meets the court’s conditions, the conviction will be cleared from his or her record.

Another issue raising controversy is the use by state and federal governments of privately run, for-profit prisons. Private prisons house nearly 20 percent of all federal prisoners, and the number of inmates housed in private facilities doubled between 2000 and 2010. In 2012, The United Methodist Church’s Board of Pensions sold the investments it had in two private prison companies and made the decision no longer to invest in companies that receive more than ten percent of their revenue from the operation of prison facilities. “It came down to [the fact] that profiting from the incarceration of others was just not consistent with our view of what the … Social Principles ask for,” said David Zellner, the board’s chief investment officer.

A riot in July at the private prison in Kingman, Arizona, has reignited debates over whether private prisons provide substandard services compared to public facilities. The riot injured nine prison staff members and seven inmates. More than 1,000 inmates had to be moved to another facility because of damage done to the prison. Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee, a longtime private prison critic, says that the riot points to “a management issue. If I had to wager, most of the problems in for-profit prisons are related to staffing, and most staff are new, undertrained and they don’t pay their guards well,” she said.

Christian teachings about prisons and prisoners

As we consider issues of public safety, the treatment of prisoners, and the possibility of rehabilitation, our faith provides many resources to guide us.

Christian Scriptures are filled with references to imprisonment. Many of the Psalms describe the utter despair of the prisoner, who cries out to God from the depths of his abandonment. The Psalms also repeatedly describe how God listens to those who are needy or in prison and does not despise those who are in captivity. (See Psalm 102:18-22 and Psalm 107:10-16, for example.) While our society’s judgment of prisoners is often harsh, our faith declares that all persons are created in the image of God, no matter how terrible the things are that they have done.

The New Testament instructs believers to remember and visit those who are in prison. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus talks about many groups of people in need and says that those who visit the prisoner have ministered to him. Those who have neglected the prisoner have neglected him.

Ministry with prisoners

Prison ministry was also a vital part of the early Methodist movement. In 1778, the Methodist Conference declared that it was the duty of every Methodist preacher to minister to those who were in prison. United Methodists’ ministry with prisoners today continues in many forms, from ministries inside prisons and with people leaving prison to advocacy for humane conditions.

What forms can our ministry with prisoners take? How can people of faith not only walk with incarcerated persons in their faith journeys but also help their voices to be heard in the outside world? Where is our advocacy needed so that the human dignity of prisoners will be upheld even while we seek the safety of our communities? While there are no easy answers to these questions, there are many caring people, both within and beyond the church, both inside the walls of prisons and in the outside world, who are seeking solutions. May we listen to their witness as we discern how God is calling us to act.

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