Part of the theory in developing prisons is to remove criminals from society, partly as punishment, partly to remove criminals from the ability to commit crimes and/or illegal substances. Of course, there are many theories on prisons. Very few of the ones that work are applied to actual prisons in our society.
Which brings us to New Orleans, where video has surfaced showing inmates with guns, drugs, booze and money, gambling on the prisons floors, shooting up and getting drunk — all filmed by the inmates themselves. They call it "Orleans Parish Prison gone wild."
Where are the guards? Who knows. They are likely the ones who supplied all the contraband, as the prisoners in the video allude to widespread corruption rampant throughout the system. But that question is the only reason this video even surfaced. A man committed suicide after he was left for over an hour in a cell. The family of the victim sued the state, and used the video to prove the officers weren't doing their jobs.
It wasn't because the conditions in the prison were horrible, with several inmates to a cell with small excuses for beds, eating what was called "food" that was prepared next to the toilet. Nor was it being used as an example of why the recidivism rate in this country — that is, the number of people who return to prison after their sentence — is over 40 percent within three years. This is despite the $52 billion per year states spend on corrections.
Programs that help educate prisoners or put them back to work have shown to be effective in reducing these rates. Former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey's work with female prisoners in has been successful, reducing the recidivism rate down to 22 percent — saving the government money in the process. Pew estimates just a ten percent reduction in recividism rates would save $635 million in one year.
“The way we do prisons and jails in America is largely a failure,” says McGreevey, who was an assistant prosecutor and parole board director early in his career. His passion on the subject surges through as he speaks at length about the failings he sees. He cites the “staggering financial burden” placed on a country where one out of 32 people are in the system—either in prisons or jails, on probation or on parole. He casts dismay over the fact that drug-addicted and violent women are cycled through without any attempt to heal them. It drives him nuts that prisoners aren’t expected to work. “In our program, everybody works,” he says. “Everybody gets up in the morning, brushes their teeth and makes their bed. For me, it’s about changing behavior.”
It's funny what happens when you start to see everyone as an actual person. That's the difference between helping someone get back on their feet, and leaving them in a cesspool surrounded by the evils that got them incarcerated in the first place.