Brown: The permanent penitentiary


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The penitentiary system is one that no longer serves its primary function. The focus has shifted from rehabilitating offenders with the idea that they may transition back into society. Instead, it has become a place to store those who have broken their social contract. Upon completion of their sentences, many members of the incarcerated community quickly find there is no longer a place in society for them. Any sentence becomes a life sentence when one considers the stigma that follows a convicted felon for the rest of her or his life.

With the goal of opening up a dialogue between the incarcerated and the rest of the Iowa community, the first Incarcerated in Iowa symposium was held this past weekend. Various projects were presented, ranging from ways to promote literacy and scholarship in the prisons to reducing the overall increase in the prison population. While I think this is great start in terms of what can be done for those in the system, there is something else that takes priority. The idea of giving skills to prisoners to use in the outside world is the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm, because for the large majority, they will never be allowed a platform to use such skills.

More needs to be done for those members of the incarcerated population who, upon completion of their sentence, find difficulty in picking up where they left off. According to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, more than 50 percent of inmates serve 10 years or fewer, which means eventually they will return to society and be expected to carry on with their lives. When a prospective employer asks if they have a prior criminal conviction, their fate is basically sealed.

Lack of opportunities and social stigma perpetuate a cycle that results in inmates frequently being re-incarcerated. The most recent study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics states, “three out of four former prisoners in 30 states were arrested within five years of their release.” If there aren’t any incentives to stay out of prison, how can one expect to reduce the prison population?

We cannot deal with unruly citizens by simply locking them up and throwing away the key. It cannot be definitively said that every person released from prison will become a productive member of society, but uncertainty is not grounds for denying him or her the opportunity. One poor decision should not mark people as guilty for the rest of their lives. If given the opportunity, we all have the potential to prove we can be more than our past choices.  

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