Robert A. Ferguson’s new book about our addiction to incarceration, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment, asks a poignant question about our culture. Do we, as a people, have a drive to punish that is especially virulent? The statistics seem to indicate that we do.
According to Ferguson, the United States is the world leader in locking up human beings behind bars. “We are less than 5% of the world’s population, but we warehouse 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Our per capita incarceration rate is seven times greater than France’s, 14 times greater than Japan’s and 24 times greater than India’s.” This is in spite of a decrease in crime for the last three years. Is our obsessive desire for punishment a cultural trait spawned by our Puritanical heritage?
Our proclivity for incarceration costs American taxpayers about $80 billion a year and that does not include the indirect costs—financial and emotional– to families of the incarcerated and their communities. In 2007, there were 1.7 million children in the U. S. with a parent in prison. Imagine what impact that has on those children’s health, welfare and education.
What makes us the most punitive nation in the world? Ferguson surmises that “we are generally unable to understand the pain and suffering of others.” About one of every nine American prisoners is serving a life sentence, many of whom have no chance of parole, some 10,000 of them for nonviolent offenses (often drug possession). More than 50,000 prisoners are held in long-term solitary confinement, even though the United Nations has determined that solitary confinement for longer than 15 days amounts to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” A huge percentage of the prison population in this country suffer from a mental illness.
According to an article entitled “By the Numbers: Mental Illness Behind Bars” written by Sarah Varney in Kaiser Health News, in state prisons, 73% of women and 55% of men have at least one mental health problem; in federal prisons, the incidence of mental illness is 61% of women and 44% of men; and local jails house 75% of women and 63% of men with mental health issues.
I have written about this issue before but I am aware that stigmatization makes it easy to ignore the suffering of the incarcerated mentally ill and their families. Legislators, driven by the mandate to be tough on crime, don’t see the face of those caught in a system that exacerbates their condition. Prosecutors are assessed by their win-loss records, not by whether they have furthered the cause of justice. Judges are constrained by mandatory sentencing laws and are inured to the harshness of the penalties they impose. I hate to think that we are, indeed, a culture that is exceptionally punitive.
It is time to address both our sentence severity as well as our inability to face the fact that so many of our citizens are suffering from mental illness and need appropriate treatment, not incarceration. Prisons offer little in the way of rehabilitation or training for life after incarceration. Most prisoners are released with a cashier’s check for $200 and nowhere to go. Many are barred from housing, certain kinds of jobs, and voting. Their top priorities upon release are getting a job, keeping their families together, and healing from the trauma of prison–– a monumental task if you suffer from a brain disorder.
No wonder our recidivism rate is 67.5%. Ferguson, a professor of law and literature at Columbia University, notes that a dozen or more studies have been written denouncing the situation in recent years with little noticeable effect.
Passage of The Affordable Care Act—and its expansion of Medicaid—offers one positive step in caring for inmates who suffer from a mental illness. It is expected to connect previously uninsured ex-offenders with medical care and mental health treatment. However, in the short term, jails and prisons remain the places where those with severe mental illnesses will be housed in the United States.
Is this how we wish to be remembered?