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The purse is thrown away with the key

November 24, 2007|By Paul Inskeep

The United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, but nearly a quarter of its prisoners. We are a country that, because it has increased the length of sentences and virtually eliminated parole, has seen its prison population grow seven times larger than it was in 1970.

We are a country that puts a larger percentage of its own citizens behind bars than any other country in the world. These statistics will surely take on added significance in the next several years, as the cost of housing in the United States' booming prison population continues to skyrocket.

It's easy to feel compassion for men and women who stare out from behind bars and jagged razorwire - their wrinkled skin and gnarled hands restrained by chains, crutches and other symbols of frailty - and positioned against cell doors. There are a staggering and imposing series of facts and statistics to support the argument against lengthy prison incarceration and to indicate that the American penal system is not only cruel and vindictive, but also a huge waste of money and lives. However, the popular perceptions about crime have blurred the boundaries between fact and politically expedient myth.

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The brutality, excessive cost and ineffectiveness of prisons are well-documented, but prosecutors and politicians alike know the mindset of the general population, which demands these long sentences. Their failure to secure them would mean losing the next election. So the gruesome practice continues.

A few questions must be posed to the general population: Will locking up more people ultimately increase the number of sociopaths in our midst - as more than 90 percent of the prison population will be released at some time - if we fail in offering any form of meaningful rehabilitation and education for those incarcerated? There is also the issue of critical mass. As you lock up a higher percentage of young men in a community, what happens when these young men come out, in terms of role models, crime and the safety of the community? Many will be lacking jobs upon release. And, having no access to state support, they will resort to stealing just to eat. Many will also be homeless and their best chance of finding shelter will be to commit crimes and return to jail or prison.

But the issue may not be the overcrowding and tremendous expense. The issue may be the prevention of crime in the United States. To prevent mistakes and ignorance, the hostility and hopelessness that condemn the young and often not-so-young to a lifetime of imprisonment, rehabilitation and educational programs are far cheaper.

More importantly, for the general population they are more productive than the present system of "lock 'em up and throw away the key" programs of the present prison environment.

In the United States, 6 million students are on the verge of dropping out of high school. In an effort to get tough on crime in 1994, Congress abolished the practice of awarding Pell Grants (federal education grants that do not have to be paid back) to prisoners, effectively ending chances for inmates to get a college education while incarcerated.

This legislation met strong opposition from the Department of Education, which concluded that only one tenth of 1 percent of the Pell Grant budget went to the education of prisoners. However, the grants were ended for prisoners, even though a number of studies concluded that post-secondary education lowered recidivism rates.

The United States is the "world leader" in incarcerating its citizens. Let us be the "world leader" in education and rehabilitation of our incarcerated population, which, in the end, will lead to a more productive and healthier country.

Democracy and common sense are our most valuable tools. Let's use them to change the system.

Paul Inskeep is an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Training Center

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