The US prison system is expected to do two things: punish criminals in order to deter crime, and rehabilitate criminals into becoming productive members of society. There is a never ending battle between three or four forces of opinion in our society: There are those who want prisoners to suffer and to do forced labor so that they straighten up out of fear of re-incarceration. There are many who think that, given training, work, moral education and good treatment, criminals are indoctrinated with better thought processes. Prisoners are then less likely to return to a life of crime. In the case of those who have committed horrific crimes against individuals, there is little or no support for rehabilitation or a comfortable life spent in prison.
Those who want suffering and rehabilitation truly believe that hard work, limited or earned pleasures and indulgences, and a regimented structure is the best way to literally re-form the minds of criminals so that they develop improved decision making and thought processing abilities. Prisoners under these programs are expected to develop an appreciation for hard work, to develop work and personal discipline, and to see crime as the last thing that they want to do.
Where the prison systems have failed:
1. Private prison concerns have influenced our sentencing laws through lobbying in order to increase their "product", or prison population. As a result, people who should never have been incarcerated for lengthy periods are thrown in with hard core criminals and subjected to reverse rehabilitation in the form of "year round schools for criminals".
2. There is an abysmal failure to segregate and handle mentally ill and out of control prisoners as they should be handled. In too many cases, the severely mentally ill are thrown into the general populations, then literally tortured with escalating and repeated punishments that are only appropriate for prisoners who can understand what it is that they are doing wrong and who can stop the behavior, if they choose.
3. The major failures have been done by we, the people. We express major outrage at the treatment of foreign prisoners, but pretend not to care or even know about the horrific abuse that goes on in our own juvenile facilities. We sit and listen to tales of prison rape, assaults, drug dealing and murder, and don't even blink an eye, when we should be expressing our outrage. As a result, released prisoners are more likely to kill more of us before they go back into prison.
4. We have not demanded more public evaluation, monitoring and oversight in private prison management. We have failed by allowing private prisons to build walls of absolute power to tell even us what we can and cannot do in investigating their operations. We have allowed private prison firms to violate the terms of their contracts, create horrific and abysmally managed systems, and engage in violations of the law in complete secrecy.
5. The prisoners, in most cases, have failed themselves. There are prisoners who have no intentions of rehabilitating and who are only waiting out their time. They only intend a return to the same lifestyle that they led before they went to jail. Others, with no possibility of parole in their lifetimes, have nothing to lose by setting up and enforcing their own laws for their own societies behind prison walls. These individuals need to be segregated from those who show potential for rehabilitation. Instead, criminals go in, die or do their time, no better off than they were before they went in.
And that is the failure of our prison systems.