Debating Teams And The Prison-Industrial Complex

The news that a team of prisoners–incarcerated criminals from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility–had beaten, in debate, Harvard’s team, was not slow in spreading. After the initial informal reactions on social media–many of which expressed glee at Harvard’s comeuppance by plebes–had died down, a more measured response followed, one which stressed that such a result was entirely unsurprising, that to entertain such surprise was to entertain stereotypes of prisoners being merely dangerous and stupid.  (An old friend who teaches at San Quentin told me her students are highly intelligent and motivated, among the best students she has ever had.) Several articles–in The Washington Post, The Harvard Crimson, and The Guardian–made precisely this same point. In these commentaries there is another common theme: that these results confirm the value of reform programs like Bard College’s Bard Prison Initiative, which offers an undergraduate education to about 300 New York State prisoners.

These two issues–the intelligence of the incarcerated and the success of well-planned and executed prisoner reform programs–highlight once again the tragedies of the prison-industrial complex as it currently exists today in the US. The US’ incarceration rates, as of October 2013, at 716 per 100,000 are the highest in the world; with 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the US houses 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. This imprisonment does not come cheap; in 2007, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that its costs ran to an annual $74 billion. (Wikipedia source here.) But these costs are severely understated if one takes the talents of the imprisoned population into consideration.

The grim reality of a stint in prison is that–despite the fact that behind-the-bars activities have resulted in  musical albums and literature–they are finishing schools for criminality. Many an amateur checks in, only to check out as a seasoned professional. His or her time will have been marked–in most cases–by rape and assault, and by participation in criminal activity of one kind or the other. Mild forms may involve the smuggling in of contraband; less benign activities include the remote control of external criminal actions and participation in gang activity–very often violent–within the prison. (Bureau of Justice Statistics reports on the rates of recidivism among prisoners make for depressing reading, indicating as they do, rearrest, reconviction, and return to prison rates at or over fifty percent.)

The net result is the situation at hand today: hundreds of thousands of young men and women, rotting away in jail, tossed into a trash heap of sorts, forgotten and condemned, deemed unworthy of reform, guarded by correctional staff who over the years have had their humanity leached out of them, subjected to violence from within and without, and taught, ultimately, all the wrong lessons. This reckless wastage of ‘human resources’ would be considered profligate and indulgent at the best of times, an indication perhaps that the nation in question had recklessly determined it had ample talent, enough to spare in a gigantic, misbegotten criminological experiment. But of course it doesn’t; no nation can afford such squandering of talent, such locking away of so much potential, often fueled by racist tilting at windmills like the war on drugs.

Not every criminal is a budding debate champion or writer or artist; reform remains difficult, a challenge for sociologists, psychologists and criminologists alike. But whatever those challenges, we also know what doesn’t work: the penal system we have now.

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