Instead of Prison

June 5, 2011 by Sarah van Gelder, YES! Magazine

A “parallel social universe”—that’s what Michelle Alexander calls the world that millions of Americans inhabit once they’ve been convicted of a crime. Those in prison seldom get access to the education, substance abuse treatment, and job training that would prepare them to succeed on the outside. Once released, ex-offenders are discriminated against for jobs, housing, and state and federal assistance; millions permanently lose the right to vote. Without a reliable source of income, many pass along their status as outcasts to their children.

But today’s massive budget deficits may create an opening for transforming a system that is locking up Americans at the highest rate in the world. What might such a system look like? This issue of YES! explores alternatives to punishment and banishment—approaches that demand accountability from offenders, but also give them a shot at full reintegration into the community.

Instead of punishing drug addicts, many of whom are victims of trauma, treatment and safe spaces lessen addiction and the harm caused by drug use.

Instead of warehousing people behind bars, education programs reduce the number who reoffend and return to prison.

In New Zealand, instead of locking up young offenders, a council made up of family, community members, and crime victims holds them accountable for their crimes, and then gives them an opportunity to make restitution and be reintegrated into the community. This approach also benefits crime victims; studies show those involved experience less post-traumatic stress.

The involvement of the broader community is key to the success of these restorative approaches. A welding instructor, a Girl Scout troop, or a garden club can create a vital link to the outside. Ex-offenders and ex-addicts can mentor those released from prison; the Delancey Street Project, for example, offers peer support and job-skills training in businesses run by ex-inmates and addicts.

There are a small number of people we might agree should be locked up: psychopathic killers, rapists, and others who threaten to harm us.

But the bulk of the prison population is made up of those with few resources who have committed nonviolent offenses—especially poor people, people of color, drug users, alcoholics, and the mentally challenged. Imprisoning millions of these people does not make us safer. Crime rates have fallen, but no more so in states with high rates of incarceration than in states that have reduced prison populations.

Imprisoning 2.3 million people is depleting government coffers, resulting in funding cuts for programs like quality education with proven track records for reducing crime. The state of California is just one place where a formerly excellent system of higher education languishes as state spending flows into a prison building boom.

“When we were in the village, we took care of the kolohe, the hard-headed people,” the warden of Hawaii’s women’s prison told me. “But now we don’t rely on our neighbors anymore. It’s easy to take the kolohe person and just throw them away.”

This issue is about what happens when we quit throwing people away—when instead of isolation and punishment, we choose healing and inclusion.

Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for Beyond Prisons, the Summer 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is executive editor of YES!