Let’s Make Getting Into Prison Like Getting Into College - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Let’s Make Getting Into Prison Like Getting Into College

Let’s Make Getting Into Prison Like Getting Into College

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because merit-based reward systems work most everywhere else.

By Eugene S. Robinson

If you’re the average high school upperclassman, your entire world has been honed into an increased and laser-focused awareness of not just dating, sports, dances or fun but, for those of a certain inclination, a grim turn to the process that resolves itself in attending the college of your “choice.” Insofar as it might affect the entire flow of your later life, you’d find a whole phalanx of folks lined up to help. Counselors, tutors, college application coaches, parents. All guiding your next step up.

If all works according to Hoyle, in four years or so, you’ll find yourself a contributing member of society. Just like prison, right?

Everyone knows there’s a lack of understanding about the impact imprisonment has, says Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, a psychotherapist and former governor at Norway’s Bastøy Prison (aka “luxury” prison). “But anyone who wants can get solid, broad, international evidence and research that detention in traditional prisons is harmful and will cause many convicts to return to society worse threats to the community than when they were imprisoned.”

The community and prison authorities should shift from revenge and short-term solutions.

Arne Kvernvik Nilsen

So college is not like prison at all. In fact, American approaches to incarceration never fall very far from the idea that the experience is and should be about punishing you away from the bad more than luring you to the good. Efforts to smooth the skids for the properly “penitent” are often met with reminders that jail is not supposed to be “fun.” And evidence abounds that it is, in fact, not fun. According to The New York Times, prisons in at least seven states are 25 percent over capacity. Guards in a Pennsylvania prison were just recently charged with sexually abusing inmates in a facility that’s had problems for the last decade, and riots have recently ripped through Arizona, Delaware, Kansas and internationally in Brazil and Mexico, to name just a few spaces and places.


Yet despite this, at least in the United States, a Bureau of Justice Statistics study finds that state prison inmates who are released have a five-year recidivism rate of 76.6 percent, and 44.7 percent for federal prisons. Just to be clear, this means that most people in state prison and almost half in federal prison will be back behind bars after leaving prison because of crimes that get you thrown in prison. Crimes with a variety of victims attached to them. 

Which is very much like taking your car to the shop because it’s broken only to have to return it after it breaks again — and here’s where it gets important for cynics — and pay even more money for a car that will, guaranteed, break badly enough to end up back in the shop. Again.

Nilsen believes community and prison authorities should “be brave enough to establish and operate prisons based on research and the accountability of the individual prisoners to create long-term positive effects.” Bastøy gave prisoners large amounts of autonomy, their own places, tennis lessons and all kinds of country club amenities. Their recidivism rate of just a few years ago? A refreshing 16 percent. And in 2014 the prison won the 2014 Blanche Majors Reconciliation Prize, for promoting human values and tolerance.

But there’s a solution: Make going to prison like getting into a good college. 

The problem, says Eddie Williams, a retired undercover gang-detail cop, is that “if prison was a better place to be than wherever you called home, you might have people gaming the system.” A paranoid claim that may not be too far off the mark in a country marked by greater social inequity than Norway.

But there is a solution: Make going to prison like getting into a good college. 

Once convicted in the United States — unlike Bastøy, that takes murderers and rapists as well as lower-grade malefactors — prisoners here would face an admissions panel and, in the process of weeding out, those with a greater chance at rehabilitation would be given a shot at the better penal institutions. Convicts in the prison versions of community colleges could apply for transfers, earned largely through healthful and helpful improvements in themselves and the spaces around them.

The base-level-grade penal institution for hardcore intransigents would be no worse than what we have now, but with a lower conversion rate since those with a fighting chance of succeeding on the outside would be separated out from those who have no choice. And those with no, or very little, chance could get the medical and mental-health treatments they need to help them create non-hellish, and now not crowded, behind-bars environments.

A problem with my cunning plan remains, according to Irma Norman, a former counselor for juvenile offenders at New York’s Spofford Juvenile Detention Center. It’s “the same problem we have with institutes of higher learning: Them that have will get, them that don’t will not. I don’t think we need a prison system that doesn’t work the best for them that need it the most.”

But we’re going to have to side with 18th-century English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on this: “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness.” And if we’ve finally gotten uncomfortable with the notion of beating our kids, might it be that we’ll get more comfortable with our penal theory evolving into something that seeks less to punish and more to rehabilitate? 

“Well, we believe that we cannot change anyone, really,” Nilsen concludes. “But change comes from within. All we can do is create a positive environment that can start such a process.”

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