Aaron Nielsen

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Prison Reform: how can we make them more effective?

America's penal system is full of widely acknowledged, but seldom-debated flaws which impair their effectiveness as centers for the rehabilitation and punishment of criminals.

It is no secret that they are often over-crowded, unsanitary, short of guards, and plagued by abuses of power from the officials working there. They are expensive to operate. Most fundamentally, their value as deterrents to would-be criminals is questioned by many, as is their efficacy in 'rehabilitating' them, i.e. turning them into law-abiding citizens.

I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately, and I was just wondering what TED's opinion would be on the issue. In what ways can we improve our penal institutions so that they are cheaper, more efficient, and generally better at achieving their goal of rehabilitating criminals? Is this goal even feasible at all within the current mode of thinking? let me know what you guys think.

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    Feb 28 2012: Aaron, I speak as a person who has worked in the system for 20 years. Most of what you say is true. I would argue that they are "plagued by abuses of power". The courts sentence the felon to prison to seperate them from the danger they represent to society. Prisons are given certain mandates such as obtaining a GED, anger management classes, family classes, etc These are not rehabilitating, they are "exposing" the inmate to a better way to address problems. I see everyday that the cheat on tests and laugh about the programs. I have ticketed inmates who go to church services as a means to transport drugs from one location to another. They use baby diapers to smuggle drugs into prison. They make wives put drugs into places in their bodies to satisfy their needs. Extortion, rape, beatings, gangs, and the list goes on. Recidivism is high because they have no fear of prison. The worst thing I can do to them is further isolate them. I have been beaten, set on fire, my family threatened, stabbed, and on the inmate hit list to be killed. It is time that people stop thinking that these people are here for not attending sunday school. The best I can do for an inmate is to try to keep them from a beating or being killed. I have been sued for eating pizza and not offering a piece to an inmate and that being cruel and unusual punishment. I put not only my life but my families well being on the line every day. You have watched to many movies. Prison is not about rehibilitation. Prison is about survival. You want reform ... make prison a place they do not want to go back to. They lay in bed all day watching TV, exercise when they want, have snacks, everything furnished, and basically waited on by staff. They see society as weak and take every advantage. Meet and talk to people who work in prisons and see the other side. Don't believe all you hear.
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        Feb 29 2012: In Muslim countries they cut off a hand or behead the person. Not a lot of prison time there. There are laws protecting the inmate. What are you going to do if he refuses to work. You still feed him, house him, give medical care, etc ... Our laws are clear. The inmate knows right from wrong but took the chance and got caught. He continues to break laws in prison. Prison Ministries are concern people with good intentions. They are somewhat nieve. These are master con men at work against honest people. Nothing is 100%. There is always someone who wants change. It is not my place to judge. Illegals and drugs are by far the greatest time servers. What would you recommend. Legalize drugs and make illegals citizens? No way. I do a job that few people want. I monitor the element of society that endanger the rest. Enabling is a good word. There must be a way to make designer prisons. By that I mean a facility for drug dealers, drug users, illegals, murders, and other felons. It would make programs more specific. Punishment to fit the crime. Stop putting a bad check writer with a raper. The soft criminal with the hard ones. If prison was a place that they did not want to come back to it would cut down on some crime. One prisoner told me he had committed thousands of crimes from top to bottom and had been convicted for one of the lessor of his crimes. He is by his words a career criminal. There is no way to help or change someone who has become institutionalized. Go on a tour of a max custody facility. See, hear, and smell the prison experience. In the case of Southwest states the prison population could be reduced by one half by the federal government enforcing the Constitutional border laws. Thiis could also reduce the drug offenders doing time. Our lives are on the line because of political decisions to garner votes that out weigh the Constitution. Yep I'm bitter.
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          Feb 29 2012: I like that idea of "designer prisons". I have to admit, I have been a little ignorant because I thought we already had separate institutions for different kinds of offenders. We definitely need to! It really doesn't make any sense to include minor criminals with organized ones, and then throw them all together with serial killers and psychotics.
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      Feb 29 2012: Thanks for sharing your insider's knowledge with us; it's always valuable to have a closer perspective on things.

      To be clear, I am not a rosy idealist who believes that inmates are misunderstood saints that are constantly being maltreated by those who are charged with watching over them, and I apologize if I seemed to imply that all (or even most) authority figures within prisons are corrupt or incompetent. I realize that the job of managing a prison isn't easy, and as you have helped to underscore, it takes courage to even sign up for such a job.

      When I look at prisons, I see their flaws and recognize their shortcomings, and that's why I posted this TED debate: I want to know what ideas are out there for improving the penal system so that it *can* be more geared towards rehabilitation instead of merely incarceration and "survival", as you put it. Surely, if it is at all possible to make prisons into places where inmates can be reformed, it would be worth it to society to make this happen. I think that going in the direction of making prison an even scarier place that criminals will fear will only embolden them in their efforts to avoid capture, and perhaps make them even more violent.

      We can't expect a prisoner's nature to change overnight. It takes time, resources, and the application of innovative techniques to do that. I'm trying to provoke a conversation about what innovations would work best, not only for the rehabilitation of prisoners, but also for improving the safety of prisons for those who work within them as well. Is it feasible to accomplish this? Maybe, maybe not...but it would be a mistake to let the formidable nature of the task deter us from thinking about solutions.
  • Mar 4 2012: Oh. Two more things:

    1. A court sentences a prisoner to jail. But no time
    limit is given to the prisoner. Jail will decide
    when he is released.

    2. A prisoner. Once released. He will be told., If
    caught again, then there is no more court and jail
    for him. He will go to the free prison.

    Do you see? If we follow my plan, then prisons will
    work. They will cost society not a lot of money. And
    prisoners are rehabilitated.

    Why did the politicians not come up with a good plan?
    Of course not. They are only interested in filling
    their pockets. They should be send to prison.
  • Mar 4 2012: You bring a very interesting subject up. In fact. You
    are asking. Are prisons working? Do they do what they
    should do?

    You already gave an answer to that question. Prisons
    are bad. They do not work. There is a problem with
    criminals. Prisons make the problem bigger.

    Forget about the abuse and the rape. Think of a
    prisoner going to jail. That is university for him. He
    will learn how he can make more money with crime.

    But. And that is what you want to know. Is there a way
    out? What can be done to make prisons better? Trust me.
    It is very simple.

    I have a three steps plan:

    1. Prisoners pay for their stay in prison. Let's say
    they pay $ 1,000 per month. $ 500 for their stay in
    prison and $ 500 to pay back society.

    2. Prisoners are going to help the police. They tell
    them about other criminals that they know. And the
    police goes after them.

    3. Prisoners start working and making decent money.
    They money they make is enough to pay for their stay
    in prison.

    Some remarks. You have prisoners that do not want to
    pay. That is perfectly all right. They do not have to
    pay. They only pay if they want to pay.

    But. If a prisoner is not paying, then he is removed
    from the prison. He will go to a free prison. There he
    has no room and no food.

    So every prisoner has got a choice. Pay or die. And if
    he cannot pay. Let his family pay. They got money from
    him as he was committing crime.

    Oh. Prisoners do not want to help the police That is
    OK. They are free to help the police. But if they do
    not help the police, then they will not work either.

    Working. Prisoners can grow vegetables and they can do
    much more. Imagine how much that will help society. The
    prices will go down.

    And once they are released. They will have a job. So
    prison is complete rehabilitation. I mean. What company
    wants to engage an ex prisoner?
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  • Feb 29 2012: Prison Reform:
    This topic was addressed very nicely by a guy from Australia some months back. I don't remember his name or the title of his topic but it was about turning prisons into schools of a sort, whereby those incarcerated can become educators with the goal of helping others to not follow a life of crime and thus, not come there. Not a bad idea and there are many inmates who would want to help in sincere, honest ways and it does or would allow them, to maybe heal themselves somewhat by 'giving back' in meaningful ways, influencing others of the inmate population to desire change from within (within prison and within their own psyche) and could have or make quite a positive affect on crime.

    One problem was that they wanted to run it as a business, and thus, as all businesses in an unjust system like capitalism in America, they need to make a profit. That's no good, for to make a profit they need to keep crimes being committed in order to have clients to work with. I tried to point out that doing this successfully (the goal in my mind anyway) would mean a business that is so successful that it "goes out of business" (that is the goal), because it works! Younger people are educated, helped and redirected by inmate educators who truly desire to make a change in the general population, do a good job, and crime goes way, way down. No more traffic into prison, no more business because no more profit. The profit needs to be to society, not money. And it needs to go both ways. Those walking around "free" (thinking they are), are just as "institutionalized" as those behind bars, and they need education as well. But, the American system, as are most systems globally, are inherently unjust and cannot be made just. They have to be gotten rid of and new ones created and put in their place.

    I believe it is wrong to label so many of having criminal minds, and until we have societies (just ones),
    in which there are no reasons to commit crime, the label doesn't fit.
  • Feb 28 2012: Hi Aaron
    First let me say it's nice to hear from someone local, I live in Ross Township just down the road from you. We can make them more effective by treating them as human beings and not animals. We can stop punishing them for the rest of their lives by not hiring them once they have served their time. A large percentage are mentally ill, we could get them treatment ( I sit on a state committee to do just that ). We could create better re-entry programs that allow former prisoners to come back into society and give them a chance. As it stands now there is no such thing as rehabilitation, it's strictly punishment and degrading the individual. People leave prison with no self-esteem, no hope for a future, little chance for gainful employment and a lifetime of punishment being known as an ex-con. The system doesn't work, it's an industry and one of the fastest growing in the country.
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      • Feb 29 2012: Hi Roy
        And then after not being employed and having trouble getting housing we wonder why they repeat and wind up back in prison. Maybe we need to get more serious about re-entry programs to stop the cycle.
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        Feb 29 2012: That's an interesting angle regarding the insurance liability thing; I hadn't thought of that, but it probably is a contributing factor. Another factor would be education, of course--many inmates are high school dropouts, and only a very small percentage of the prison population has education beyond high school. Because of this, a lot of ex-convicts are simply not qualified for jobs outside of minimum-wage territory. For that reason, helping prisoners to receive GEDs and higher education from within the prison is essential, and we also need to make it easier for them to become educated on the outside.
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      Feb 29 2012: Yeah, I go down there often! small world I guess =)

      I think you raise a very important point about reintegrating ex-convicts into society upon their release. Naturally, when a former prisoner is allowed to leave after serving their term out, they need to be able to secure gainful employment and any assistance necessary in order to facilitate their transition into normal civilian life; the alternative is to perpetuate the vicious cycle where criminals with no prospects for establishing an ordinary life have are forced to fall back into the illegal ways that landed them in trouble in the first place. I would suggest providing incentives to employers who are willing to take a chance hiring former prisoners, and establishing therapeutic networks in cities to help provide the ex-convicts with guidance in adopting to their new lifestyles. Helping released inmates relocate to new localities outside of their native areas might also be fruitful; I think it's important that they are given the opportunity to restart their lives elsewhere, away from bad influences and acquaintances that might linger in their old neighborhoods. It would also limit the stigma that such people face.

      I've also suspected that penal systems, as they exist currently, do little more than exact society's punitive revenge on criminals, which is counterproductive in the end. Nothing worries me more than the increasing concerns of the private sector in the prison industry, either; that can only lead to more and more exploitation.
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    Feb 28 2012: Bring back heavier censorship on television and movies,censor reality tv shows like big brother,jordie shore

    Try to curb internet porn but thats a joke though atleast try.

    It's for the next generation.
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    Feb 28 2012: The immediate fixture would be to stop arresting people for victimless crimes via the absolute failure known as the war on drugs.

    You can drink yourself to death over the course of a decade and its legal
    You can act like an idiot and get yourself severely injured and its legal
    You can walk into a chemist and purchase dozens of medications over the counter with no question
    You can drink paint and poison/kill yourself and its legal
    You can have an abortion because a woman can do what she wants with her own body and its legal
    You can't smoke/inhale/ingest drugs because....?

    Approximately 15 Million Americans have used drugs in any given year.
    Approximately 2 million Americans consistently use Class-A drugs as a lifestyle and every drug addict has a drug dealer.. Not exactly a working system...

    We could ofcourse go further and acknowledge that the #1 reason for this asinine idea continuing are corporate lobbiysts who generate billions of income through contractors to 'perform' the war on drugs and earn even more with the use of private prisons.
    So essentially: Get corporations out of the government and 90% of the issue is resolved.

    (Ron Paul 2012)