What To Do, Part Two

Let’s think about prisons for a while.  If you want to get really depressed, take a look at the Wikipedia page on Incarceration in the US. This page shows some very interesting facts: (1) there are about 4 times as many people in prison today that there were in 1985; (2) for every 100,000 people in the US, there are about 750 people incarcerated (men and women); (3) If you take only black men, that number increases to about 4,300 (think of that for a moment); and (4) studies have shown that roughly 65% of the people let out of prison were rearrested within 3 years.  Interestingly, violent crimes have dropped by almost a factor of 2 since about 1995 (well after the increase in prison population), while property crimes went way up in the 70s, and now are coming back down, but are still well above where they were in 1960.

In the last post, I talked about how suspensions could turn into a positive educational experience.  As it is now, students who are suspended end up falling behind, struggling more, getting suspended more, and dropping out of school.  This leads to people not having an education and extremely limited options for gainful employment.  (The unemployment rate for people with no high school diploma is 11%, while the rate for those with a diploma is 7.5%. With a Bachelor’s degree, the rate drops to 4%.  Education matters!)  People with limited options have more free time, and more opportunities to get noticed by the police.  How about this for a fact: 35% of black men who have no high school diploma are incarcerated.  (For white men it is about 10%.) How can we, as a society, live with this type of fact?  It is unbelievable.

What can we do?  Obviously, education is crucially important.

My second radical solution for solving the United States’ social injustices is to offer huge incentives for prisoners to participate in educational opportunities.  Right now, a lot of prisons offer programs for receiving a GED.  I would amp these programs up significantly. While it would be extremely bad to force prisoners to actually participate in these programs, it would be interesting to see if giving the prisoners an incentive to participate in these programs would help things.  For example, if you are in prison for a nonviolent crime, and participate in a program to get a GED, your prison sentence would be reduced by 50%.  If you participate in a program for an associate’s degree, your sentence would be reduced further (for example, when you graduate with your degree, you are let out).  This type of program would solve two problems: (1) the prison population would most likely decrease because people would participate to get out earlier, and (2) the recidivism rate would decrease, since the people would be better educated and would have a better chance of getting a job.  This type of a program would end up saving states huge amounts of money.

I was listening to a podcast yesterday in which someone was talking about respect.  He argued that one of the main problems in the relationship between police officers and black men is that there is a lack of respect on both sides.  The police are supposed to serve and protect.  The guy on the podcast argued that black men do not view the police as serving and protecting, they see them as antagonizing and bullying.  This creates a horrible relationship.  He suggested that the way to mend this relationship is to bring both sides together and talk about how to actually improve things in the neighborhoods.

I would argue that most people who go to prison don’t want their life to continue down the road that it is going.  The problem is that they are backed into a corner in which it is incredibly difficult to get out of.  In our country today, we basically keep shoving those people back into the corner and eventually just lock them up for the rest of their lives.  I would prefer that we have a country in which we give people the benefit of the doubt and treat them with respect.  If we come at the problem with the idea that they are good people who are in bad situations, we can change their lives.  Do we as a society believe that 35% of all black men should be locked up and discarded?  That is insanity.

I believe that we should offer opportunities to prisoners that allows them to get out of their corners and participate in our society.  A heavy push in education would be such an opportunity.  We spend a huge amount of money on prisons.  If we invested money in prison educational programs, and we incentivised those programs, the prison population would decrease over time and our society would be much better off.

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About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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One Response to What To Do, Part Two

  1. Aaron, have we ever introduced you to our federal prison worker friends? The husband is a teacher and the wife is a psychologist at the Fed Pen in Milan. I think you’d have a lot to talk about with them…

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