It’s Time to Ask the Question: What are Prisons For?

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Glenn Martin

One of the most significant obstacles to ending mass incarceration and perpetual punishment is the lack of imagination among Americans about what we can do differently.

Glenn Martin

Glenn Martin

Current policies have been implemented over the past four and a half decades, so millions of Americans have never seen a different public safety model.  To eliminate mass incarceration, Americans must be able to imagine something else.

It happens when visionaries plant the seeds of imagination.

The “Reimagining Prison” initiative, launched yesterday by the Vera Institute, creates a space for that kind of big-picture thinking.  I was proud to be one of the speakers at the event, which took place at Eastern State Penitentiary, once the “model” for prison facilities when it was built in the early 19th century in Philadelphia—and now (appropriately) a museum.

Day-to- day, we are grinding away on the nuanced policy levers, trying to slow down the levers of the human grist mill that we’ve created in the years since Eastern State Penitentiary was built, but rarely do we invest the time and cultivate the space to help people imagine something different.

Space to ask the question, “What if?”

Now is the right time, because we have a shared baseline of agreement that what we’re doing doesn’t work.  I’ve had reporters call and ask me to help them find somebody, anybody, who thinks mass incarceration makes sense.

Look at the reaction to Senator Tom Cotton’s statement a few weeks ago that mass incarceration isn’t real,  and that we should be locking more people up.

“If anything,” he said in remarks to the Hudson Institute, “We have an under-incarceration problem. For the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted and jailed.”

Even conservatives said he was way off base.

I’m not Pollyanna-ish enough to believe that just because we have an agreement we’re going to be able to head in right direction on all reforms, but I do believe that when there are enough people who believe we can do things differently, it creates an opening and an opportunity for progress if we can fill that void.

And there is a void.

In the past it’s been, “what law can we tweak, what policy or practice can we change?” But now it’s “how do we re-envision the system?”That’s a different question and we have the potential to offer answers that help move us to a tipping point.

In order to move ahead, there are some basic foundational principles we have to have in place.  First, transparency:  of policies, practices, data, what happens inside prisons and jails, and even of the architecture that we employ in locking people up.

The only way to change the culture of punishment is to let people see what is going on in their name.

Second, we have to take the deprivation of liberty more seriously.   Taking away a defendant’s liberty is our default response.  Even after people are locked up, for instance, the way we deal with someone with mental health issues in prison is to put them into solitary confinement.  But that should be the last measure we take.

Even if a person has the potential to do harm to his/herself,, the incarceration dosage should be just enough to get beyond the potential for further harm.

Prison should always be the method of last resort.

And when it is used, it should be used sparingly.

Acceptance of these principles is becoming widespread. Now it’s up to us to put them into action.

Glenn E. Martin is founder and president of JustLeadership USA. His Twitter handle is @glennEmartin. He welcomes your comments.


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