The Moral Authority Of The Once Imprisoned

By AnnahMarie Behn-Link

Hedi benyounes g gohjecpmg unsplash

Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash

Situation Statement: To my Writing and Rhetoric classmates, this speech is on the issue of recidivism in the United States, with recidivism defined as “the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend.” This topic is relevant to me, a low-income and ethnic individual, because my demographic holds a major portion of these prison populations and recidivism rates. I do not believe my classmates have in-depth knowledge of how the prison system works, but I do think they would be willing to learn about this topic as they are fellow minorities in socioeconomic status and ethnicity and could connect how this topic directly or indirectly impacts their future. I hope to demonstrate to my classmates that the core objectives of incarceration are not being met and consequently encourage them to advocate for change in incarceration tactics.

Good afternoon, everyone! I hope this first semester at Notre Dame has treated you well. For me, it has been fantastic to take this Writing and Rhetoric course alongside fellow scholars, especially since we all have experienced similar upbringings. Our close backgrounds in socioeconomic and ethnic status actually inspired the topic of my speech today. As you all may know, there are significant racial disparities in sentencing within the United States criminal justice system. Beyond these disparities in sentencing, however, lies a severe threat that is not often recognized: recidivism.

Recidivism is the tendency to relapse into previous behavior. Specifically within the world of criminal justice, it is the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend. This phenomenon prompts numerous social and physical issues in the prison system. I will speak on these issues later, but first I wish to provide a brief background on the prison system.

The Department of Justice states the goals of the prison system are “retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation,” meaning that imprisonment should serve as punishment and restore convicts to normalcy. Recidivism rates indicate that rehabilitation and deterrence are not being accomplished. The PEW Center, a nonpartisan research institute, found that forty-three percent of prisoners released in 2004 were reincarcerated within three years. This translates to approximately four in ten offenders returning to state prison. Could you imagine almost half of our class being not only convicted, but returning to prison? The state of correctional success is evidently poor, which makes our future as the next generation of global citizens uncertain.

With minorities making up over half of the prison population, our demographic stands as the most at-risk population to recidivate. African Americans maintain the highest levels of recidivism, with the probability of reincarceration being sixteen percent higher than that of white offenders (Reisig). In addition to race, economic class can predict an individual’s likelihood to reoffend. Susan McNeeley, a research analyst with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, suggested that prior offenders who live in affluent communities are less likely to be recidivists. Unfortunately, with socioeconomic status and housing disadvantages often being correlated, it is nearly impossible for a minority offender to live in an affluent neighborhood. The connection between poverty and race further demonstrates how recidivism is intrinsically tied to American society.

By cycling prior convicts back into incarceration, recidivism creates a swelling prison population. This leads to the overwhelming issue of prison overcrowding. Overcrowded prisons spark a multitude of ethical concerns, including easy transmission of illnesses and shortages in human resources. Adequate means for modern survival cannot be provided to every person if a prison is over capacity. Instances of disease during the current COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted this health scarcity. Convicts are placed under intense physical and psychological stress from factors beyond their control, like the inability to follow social distancing protocol. At the beginning of the pandemic, one inmate at the Indiana Plainfield Correctional Facility shared a holding cell with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. In a letter to his wife, the inmate expressed his fears, writing, “He is about three feet from me right now" and "If I don't getta come home, please always know that you are and always will be the love of my life" (Harper). In our Eighth Amendment, the Constitution states “ cruel and unusual punishments [shall be] inflicted [upon offenders].” Purposely forcing offenders to endure the prospect of a contagious illness is a dehumanizing act, and by encouraging prison overcrowding these constitutional violations will continue.

The prison overcrowding epidemic can be traced to harsh sentencing on a specific subset of crimes. Particularly, the harshest sentences both in policy and in practice, are targeted towards crimes common in the most marginalized rungs of society. Consider robbery, for instance. Even though the average loss is less than three thousand dollars, the sentence can span up to fifteen years, plus probation and fines climbing to two hundred thousand dollars (Free). In stark contrast, companies such as Amazon that commit wage theft are only fined one thousand dollars per civil violation (Cal). This creates a narrative in the United States that if a poor person commits the crime of theft or robbery, they cause nearly two point five times the damage of theft perpetuated by large, wealthy corporations, but this is simply not true. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the total loss of wage theft is nearly three times that of the total loss of robberies. Why then are the sentences so disproportionate? Why are prisons not filled to bursting with corporate executives, but instead with disadvantaged individuals?

Prison overcrowding can be solved by taking a holistic approach to the array of crimes possible and assigning sentencing in a fair and equitable manner. Whether we realize it or not, the way we demand justice in the United States is motivated by social constructs that are not necessarily rooted in objectivity. If we as a society are going to dole out punishments to our citizens, we need to be sure that those punishments are based on nothing more than the objective severity of the crime. Unfortunately, some data suggests that prison sentencing may have a more sinister ulterior motive. As the public prison population expands, the immediate need for larger correctional institutions takes effect, and the establishment of private prisons increases as a result. In a recent Washington Post article, Michael Cohen states that merely two of the largest privately held prisons spent twenty-five million dollars lobbying for mandatory minimum sentencing over the past thirty years, with ten million of those dollars going directly to politicians. In addition to reducing sentencing, there is perhaps another method to effectively reduce the prison population.

Private prisons are run by corporations that have an end goal of generating profit—they are not concerned with deterring inmates from committing crimes in the future. In the big picture, private prisons will continuously garner revenue as long as recidivism remains unaddressed. Why would they want to change a business model that works, especially if they aren’t being regulated otherwise? According to the British Broadcasting Channel, the US has a prison population of nearly 2.2 million. China is second, with 1.5 million and Russia trailing in third with close to 900,000. When we compare the populations of these three countries, the data tells a shocking story. The United States has by far the highest rate of incarceration per capita in the world—nearly seven times that of China, which is widely regarded as having some of the strictest laws globally.

President Biden noted in an executive order earlier this year that “we should ensure that time in prison prepares individuals for the next chapter of their lives,” and I can’t agree more. We need functional members of society, and not an obsession with punishment. Fortunately, Biden’s executive order focused on reducing profit-based incarceration by eliminating private prison dependency. The order only addressed reducing the amount of people currently imprisoned, but it is a great first step towards abolishing private prisons as a whole in order to enforce the true objectives of the correctional system. However, it is important that this issue transcends party lines so that the work of one president is not undone by the next. Because the United States is the only country in the world that has as many private prisons as we do, it is clear that by abolishing private prisons, and by extension their lobbying dollars, we will be taking positive action towards reducing the overall prison population. Removing monetary bias towards sentencing is essential towards reaching the fair and equitable sentencing that this discourse is aiming to achieve. This executive order is the groundwork for reducing an excessive prison population, to ensure that we are leading the world in the correct categories, such as education, healthcare, and restorative justice, and not on incarcerating our own citizens.

Each of the issues I have discussed so far feed into the overwhelmingly large issue of recidivism. Prison overcrowding contributes to recidivism, as the financial strain on over-capacity prisons depletes resources required to properly care for individuals. As a result of high incarceration, the government outsources to private correctional institutions. These private facilities don’t share the same end goal as the Department of Justice. Consequently, this financial bias perpetuates a system which cycles prior convicts back into incarceration in order to meet profit objectives. It is clear that each of these institutional structures supports recidivism at a fundamental level. Attempting to lower recidivism rates without first addressing these core issues would be similar to trying to change the shape of a cup by emptying it and adding new water—an exercise in futility. At the same time, all of the solutions I have mentioned tie into rehabilitation. Reducing the required minimum sentencing will lower the rampant overcrowding crisis, instigating a chain reaction. Private prison dependency will falter and, by default, recidivism rates will plummet.

With the state of our prison system being unique to the United States, it may be worth looking to other countries and modeling our correctional system accordingly. Sweden has led the way in designing a prison system that “gets [convicts] back out into society in better shape than they were when they came in" (Aleem). A successful example in the Nordic country was the Reasoning and Rehabilitation Program. This program targets criminogenic needs, which are structural factors of an individual’s environment that contribute to their likelihood of reoffending. In the initial 2008 study, it was found that convicts that completed the program had a “25 percent lower risk of reconviction up to 36 months following prison release” (Berman).

Sweden has also established atypical rehabilitation programs, one of which is a silent religious retreat. At the Kumla prison, one of the largest prisons in Sweden, convicts take part in a month-long silent retreat (Pettersson). The retreat aims to offer a time for pure reflection while replicating Catholic traditions. In the United States, the opportunity to pursue faith and religion is limited while incarcerated. Actively providing the option of being secular or non-secular to offenders could improve our nation’s recidivism statistics. In any case, it is essential that some form of change is implemented into our correctional system.

You may be thinking that you don’t have enough sway to motivate change. I am here to share that even as a freshman in college, there are many outlets for you to actively work against recidivism. One approach is to advocate for prison reform focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment. The American Civil Liberties Union states that writing to your elected officials is extremely important and effective when attempting to push forward legislation. Writing to memberes of Congress and pushing for them to implement policies following Sweden’s example is a way you can directly change the course of recidivism.

Voting is another straightforward way to swing the balance. With the statistics and concepts I have spoken on today, I anticipate that you all will become more knowledgeable consumers of media and, consequently, more informed voters. Consider a candidate’s stance on recidivism, and how, if at all, they will institute prison reform related to overcrowding and privatization. The way they formulate a plan to improve the correctional system will shed a lot of light on their ideals as a politician.

If advocating for prison reform is too personal for you, simply educating others about the threat of recidivism can produce positive momentum. I find a quote from Cherry Short, the dean of global initiatives at the USC School of Social Work, captures this idea well: “It’s a societal problem, not a prison problem. It affects all of us” (qtd. in Dory). I interpret her words to mean that the probability of reincarceration doesn’t just lie within the structure of the prison system, but also in our hands as citizens of a democracy. It is our responsibility to inform others about the circumstances impacting our community and future. If we don’t speak up, it is not guaranteed that someone else will on our behalf.

For me, social issues that impact my identity, whether that be my socioeconomic status or my ethnicity, always feel deeply personal. It is my hope that the issues I have shared with you today feel personal to you as well and that some frustration has ignited within you. I hope the prevalence of recidivism, especially among our communities, provokes you to act against systemic racial disparities. Most importantly, I hope that you have learned how much power that you, a first-generation, low-income, first-year college student, have over the course of democracy. Thank you for listening.