The problems with today's prisons are well documented. Conditions are deplorable. Here are a few facts:
- Federal prisons are being operated at 160 percent capacity. Mandatory minimum sentences are putting thousands of nonviolent offenders in prison, for disproportionately long terms.
- Approximately two-thirds of prisoners released each year will be back behind bars in some form before three years have passed.
- Mental health care is woefully inadequate.
- Prison rape is a moral outrage rampant across America. More than 60,500 inmates reported sexual abuse in 2007 (the actual number of rapes is likely far higher), and nearly 1 out of every 8 juveniles in custody became a victim of sexual assault from 2008 to 2009, according to a Department of Justice study.
- Most states still allow the shackling of women during labor and delivery, often causing permanent scars. This unnecessary and humiliating procedure is opposed by the American Medical Association, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights and virtually anyone else who knows about it.
But improving prison conditions faces two big challenges: tight budgets and the unpopularity of compassion for those in prison.
Last year, for example, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission issued a set of rape prevention standards for adoption by the Justice Department. But corrections officials claim the new measures are too expensive, even though some of the basic policies (like not allowing male guards to supervise females in the shower) would be almost costless. Though the one-year deadline for implementation has already passed, Attorney General Eric Holder still hasn't taken action.
At the state level, exhausting economic times have become opportunities to rethink the way criminal justice is done. Facing huge, expensive prison populations, many states have commissioned studies to investigate. What analysts commonly uncover is that draconian attitudes toward probation and parole rules add years to sentences, and inadequate re-entry preparation creates vicious cycles of recidivism. People are imprisoned for longer than they need to be and are set up for failure upon release.
Some states are thankfully exploring innovative solutions. Texas and Kansas, for example, have made small changes in crucial areas of probation and parole, which has let them stabilize and actually reduce their gigantic prison populations. And they've reinvested the savings in crucial, proven-to-work re-entry programs.
This strategy (known as justice reinvestment), leads to smaller prison populations, lower crime rates and lower recidivism rates. As budget burdens are relieved, public safety measurably increases, through healthier policies.
Sometimes the problem is not money or unpopularity, but lack of coordination. Though 10 states have now outlawed the barbaric practice of shackling women who are giving birth, the issue hasn't received enough coverage to gain serious traction.
The Obama administration has the perfect opportunity to move forward on prison reform. Economic pressures are making over-criminalization fiscally unfeasible, and research-driven solutions are available. Moral issues like prison rape are crystal clear. President Obama can credibly use the bully pulpit to point out what the American criminal justice system must learn: Compassion is not the enemy of public safety.
Craig Welkener works for Justice Fellowship, the criminal justice reform wing of a the national Prison Fellowship ministry.