For many years, public policymakers have been emphasizing punishment in the correctional system, rather than rehabilitation. So-called three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences in many states aim to put even relatively minor offenders away for life rather than finding ways to encourage and help them overcome the issues that make them a threat to others; issues that often have much to do with mental illness or a life tainted from the beginning by abusive behavior.
A new survey by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics paints a vivid and disturbing picture of how halfway houses, jails and prisons in the United States are rife with abuses. No doubt abuses long have been a part of prison life, but the public attitude toward prisons as human warehouses may well have encouraged a culture within those prisons that ignores these abuses. In any case, the overwhelming majority of people in prison or jail eventually will be released. If people can't find it in themselves to be concerned about prison abuses for humanitarian reasons, they ought to be concerned about how such inmates will act when suddenly released back into society.
The Department of Justice also has released new mandatory, nationwide standards designed to prevent sexual abuses within prisons and other detention facilities. These require tough policies against rape, allow inmates a longer period of time in which to report such abuses and improve services available for victims. Each facility will be audited once every three years to ensure compliance.
The Obama administration has dragged its feet on these new standards. Two years have passed since the deadline Congress imposed for announcing them. And while they are a step in the right direction, the standards could have been tougher. Three years seems a long time between audits, and there should be definite penalties applied to facilities that don't demonstrate progress. Of course, budget limitations, as always, are a factor in any standards involving corrections. During recent difficult economic times, states have been looking for ways to ease the burdens of their prison budgets.
That is due mainly to the large numbers of people incarcerated in the United States. The government reported 2,266,800 people behind bars in state and federal prisons in 2010, with a grand total of 7,225,800 adults involved in some part of the criminal justice system. No other developed nation on earth has such a high rate of incarceration. While cause-and-effect correlations are difficult to prove, there may well be a connection between this rate and declining rates of crime in this nation. This does not mean, however, that abuses should be tolerated.
The newly released survey found that 9.6 percent of adult former state prisoners reported having been sexually abused while behind bars. Such abuses were reported to have been perpetrated both by guards and other inmates, and many of them involved other physical injuries ranging from bruises and welts to broken bones.
The justice system exists to impose justice against offenders, which implies punishment. It also ought to concern itself with rehabilitation, for the sake of society. The punishment aspect, however, should not include intolerable crimes against inmates.
Corrections can be a mean business. Criminals present a number of safety issues when locked away together. But the nation needs to take prison crimes, and the need for strong rehabilitative efforts, more seriously. The new standards are at least a step toward that.