America’s prisons

Barbed tape at a prison

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The US invented the present system of prisons and we incarcerate more prisoners than any other country, both on a percentage basis and in terms of absolute numbers. This is a statistic that we must change, since the current system is a cancer on the body politic.

I have just finished reading Crossing the Yard by Richard Shelton. He taught creative writing at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and started creative writing workshops at various units of the Arizona State Prison beginning in 1974. Eventually, he assisted the prisoners in publishing some of their work in the Walking Rain Review. There is a website devoted to the publication and back issues can be purchased at .

Working with inmates changed his life for the better and he believes that the workshops helped some of the inmates turn their lives around. Some of the inmates in our prisons should never be released, while other inmates should not be in prison at all or should be serving much shorter sentences.

American prisons incarcerate; most do little or nothing to rehabilitate. There is a current trend to privatize prisons. That creates a financial incentive to incarcerate more people for longer periods of time, generating greater profits. I believe that it is only a matter of time until we outsource some prisoners abroad to save money and increase profits. Private prisons here in the US already remove prisoners from their families and any other local support they may have by shipping them out of state.

Long sentences and no rehabilitation make it very difficult for released inmates to re-enter society. Shelton suggests that one way we can help put an end to prison revolving doors is to encourage more people to volunteer their time teaching job skills to inmates. Any employed person can teach about his/her job to inmates so that upon release, the ex-inmates have some current knowledge that can be expanded upon as necessary. An additional benefit of increased volunteerism is that more people will know how our prisons really work. That is a mandatory first step if we are to make the necessary changes in the American system of imprisonment.