A Tale of Two Prison Systems

Prison reform is a hot topic nationwide, but it is an especially hot topic for Mississippians.

Just last week two more people were indicted for giving bribes and kickbacks to former MDOC Commissioner Christopher Epps in exchange for MDOC contracts. As more and more details of this scandal are exposed it becomes clear that Mississippi is in need of serious prison reform.

However, there is another scandal which affects more Mississippians than Epps’ corruption and is seldom talked about: the prison systems themselves.

prisonOur culture has a mentality that we should lock up the prisoner and throw away the key. No special privileges—do the crime, do the time. But it is more complicated than that. The majority of these prisoners are expected to re-enter society to become productive citizens. However, the statistics tell a different story.

The United States has more prisoners per capita than anywhere else in the world. We also have the highest global recidivism rate at 76.6%, according to the National Institute for Justice. The total MDOC costs from 1992 to 2012 was $5,123,095,391. In 2012 alone costs were $339,823,231. Obviously, the taxpayers of Mississippi should not continuously pour money into a broken system. To find solutions we must look elsewhere to nations with low incarceration rates and low recidivism.

At 20%, Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. The key to this success is their rehabilitation focused prisons rather than retribution focused incarceration. The US Department of Justice found that strict incarceration actually increases recidivism rates, while systems that incorporate “theories rooted in social-cognitive theory” actually decrease recidivism, according to Christina Sterbenz, a reporter for Business Insider. So now let’s examine the differences between American and Nordic prisons.

The International Journal of Research and Practice on Student Engagement did a study which examined why people end up in the prison system. One reason that Americans have higher incarceration rates is the profitability of prisons. Prisons bring jobs in the form of corrections officers, vendors, and other aspects of prison staff. To prove the economic potential of prisons, one only has to look at the private prison industry. They would not have investors if they were not making a profit. One simple solution to this is to end the private prison system. There is no reason why the state should have to create more laws, look for criminals, and keep them incarcerated all to keep a private corporation satisfied.

This same study also highlighted some key differences in American and Nordic prison systems. In America, we have a closed prison system, where inmates are strictly controlled. Nordic prisons are open. Often there will be six prisoners to a cell which includes amenities, such as a kitchen. This teaches the prisoners about healthy social interaction and gives them a degree of independence. In the United States, the prison system does not encourage social interaction or give prisoners any degree of independence. This only reinforces unhealthy social habits and reliance on a structured system. Another key difference between these two systems is the staff.

In Norway, prison jobs are highly esteemed and sought after, so this creates a competitive job market. Prison workers also have extensive training. In fact, a guard must have two years of mentoring before he or she is allowed to solely survey the inmates.

In the United States and Mississippi, guards are under-trained and underpaid. This has led to corruption
between prisoners and guards, such as having guards smuggle in drugs or cell phones. In order to eliminate corruption and abuse of prisoners, guards should receive proper training focused on prisoner rehabilitation, not focused on asserting authority over others.

Educational opportunities for Norwegian prisoners are widely available and even encouraged. Education is a key factor when determining an inmate’s risk for recidivism. The United States does not provide prisoners with the opportunity to earn an education. As of 2005, there were only twelve prisons in the US that offered postsecondary educational opportunities, according to Forbes contributors David Skorton and Glen Altschuler.

Encouraging prisoners to receive an education will also increase their likelihood of receiving a job on release, especially in a market which is increasingly requiring college degrees. By being able to provide for themselves through a legitimate occupation, these inmates will be much less likely to end up back in prison. Instead they will contribute to society, instead of relying on government institutions for support.

Alternatively, Norwegian inmates can also learn vocational skills. Prisons will team up with local businesses to help prisoners earn real wages. These wages are used by the prisoner to help pay for his or her own expenses at the prison. Also, these vocational programs help inmates make connections to obtain a job once he or she is released. This would also create a sense of independence and money management skills in American inmates. For example, a prisoner who receives vocational training as a mechanic will be able to translate those skills to the outside world upon release. He will then be able to rely on himself, opposed to the government or a life of crime for survival.

Drug offenses are the top contributor to our nation and state’s prisons. In Norway, substance abuse and mental health counseling is offered. The United States needs to reform its drug policy, but that is an issue for another day. Drug rehabilitation can provide a way for inmates to get treatment, which obviously makes the likelihood that they will be arrested again for a drug offense dramatically decrease.

It is past time in the United States that we treated drug addiction as a health issue, not a criminal one. Criminalizing addiction only contributes to a never ending cycle of incarceration. This is not only unfair to the addict and his or her family, but also to the taxpayer.

Some people will argue that the United States is different from Norway, those prisoners do not deserve to have opportunities, or even that these ideas are pure socialism. I argue that yes, the United States is different from Norway, and perhaps we should not adopt their exact prison model—but the numbers do not lie. Norway is better at rehabilitating prisoners.

The goal of a fiscal conservative is to cut wasteful government spending. It is wasteful government spending to pour money into failing institutions. By focusing on rehabilitation initiatives then we, as a nation and as a state, can save money in the long-run and truly claim the title “land of the free,” not “land of the incarcerated.

Morgan Stringer

Morgan Stringer

Morgan L. Stringer is a law student at the University Of Mississippi School Of Law. Previously, Stringer attended the University of Mississippi and earned a Bachelor of Arts in history. Currently, she resides in both Oxford and Florence, Mississippi. Stringer is passionate about political causes involving issues of personal liberty and civil rights. Her favorite activities include reading, socializing, watching sports and tailgating in the Grove.
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