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  • Ethan Wai Chi Leung

Prisons Around The Globe Illuminate The Direction for Incarceration System

Although the majority of countries have prisons and jails, incarceration systems vary vastly among nations, with many having more progressive features that are unique and yield better outcomes. Different countries often have contrasting ideas on what prisons’ functions are, with some believing prisons are a form of rehabilitation, punishment, or a mixture of both. In the public's eye, especially in the United States, the words prisons and prisoners insinuate a sense of failure, chaos, and danger. The U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates of the world, with 655 inmates per 100,000 of the national population according to Statistica (a highly regarded data collecting platform), and that is why issues in the American incarceration system often garner public attention. There are many issues with the system such as violence, overcrowding, and hygiene; however, these issues do not not receive enough attention. One of the most important questions we should be asking ourselves is: how do we ensure the humane treatment of inmates while they are in prisons and jails? By looking at examples in other countries and examining what they did well and poorly, we will learn important lessons in how to improve our own systems.

The U.S incarceration system is a critical component of law enforcement, but currently, problems in the system have resulted in cruel and inhumane conditions for inmates. According to Human Rights Watch, while mentally ill inmates constitute between 6 and 14 percent of the incarcerated population, they rarely receive adequate monitoring or treatment. Not only that, extortion and intimidation is commonplace among prisoners and inmates have minimal opportunities for work, education, and counseling. Unfortunately, the living conditions of the prisons and jails are horrible as well, with many prisons at over 200 percent capacity and often dirty, unsafe, vermin- infested, and enclosed with little to no space for fresh air. Without a doubt, the incarceration system needs to change. As of right now in the U.S, prisons and jails don’t offer enough resources to help inmates reintegrate into society after their release. Rehabilitation should be the main focus of the incarceration system and is something the U.S should learn from other countries.

Halden Prison in Norway, for example, is a prison that does just that: it treats its inmates in such a way so they could one day reconnect with society when released. Though Halden Prison is technically a maximum security prison, it earned itself the nickname “the world’s most humane prison.” The prison quality is more than nice. Ample access to windows allows prisoners to look at the grass and trees planted around the prison. Prison rooms are furnished and decorated nicely with windows, air conditioning, and even an individual television. The prison also has rooms for inmates to make music, exercise, or lounge. In the canteen, prisoners are able to use real silverware, and cook and eat with each other as well as buy fresh fruit off the commissioner. Halden Prison goes against the idea that prisons have to be ugly and unenjoyable. It shows us there is a possibility in running a prison that treats people humanely and with respect.

The system in the U.S should focus on rehabilitation as the primary goal of prisons. This approach is common in many European countries, especially Germany and the Netherlands. In fact, Germany’s Prison Act and Netherland’s 1998 Penitary Principles state that their sole aim of incarceration is to reintegrate prisoners into a life of social responsibility free of crime. In order to do so, prison life needs to be similar to life in a community (this is often referred to as “the principle of normalization”). In Germany and the Netherlands, through normalization, individuals have a fair amount of freedom and choices over their personal lives. They get to choose their own clothing and meals. In addition, work and education are required in order to instill self-worth in prisoners. The correctional staff working with inmates have undergone training similar to that of social workers and behavior specialists in the U.S. It is evident that instead of punishing prisoners and hoping they would learn their lesson, through normalization, both countries are hoping to rehabilitate inmates so they could be valuable assets in the country's society.

An independent organization, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in India, demonstrated how free education could potentially help prisoners in jail. In an attempt to democratize education for Indian prisoners, the university has set up 94 study centers in jails across the country offering free training to inmates. These centers serve as means to provide inmates a University Certification for academic pursuits, gainful employment, and workplace education. The courses offer vocational skills like bakery, welding, tailoring, and understanding motorcycle mechanics. IGNOU has also provided released inmates chances of employment. For example, Mr. Raju, a graduate in Social Work from IGNOU, was offered a job as Assistant Business Development Manager at Taj Group of Companies. Education in prisons not only functions to teach inmates, but also helps them feel connected to society when they are in a situation which could be dehumanizing and stressful.

Some may argue that prisons that provide televisions, education, and spacious living quarters are unnecessary and extravagant, and that inmates do not deserve a high quality of living. I agree, prisoners should not have living standards that significantly outperform the middle class; however, at a minimum, prisons should invest and provide clean facilities and treat inmates like humans. Most importantly, correctional facilities should give inmates an opportunity to connect with the outside world. Prisoners get disconnected from their families or past when they go to prison, making them feel like they are entering a foreign world when finally being let out. Allowing inmates to keep those connections would ease the process of leaving jail and their mental health. Contrary to common belief, prisoners that are let out will not cause eruption or violence because they are given a chance to socialize with their families or make connections with the community.

As shown by prisons and programs in Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and India, by altering the focus of prisons to rehabilitate inmates, inmates are respected while at the same time their chance of successfully integrating back into society are improved. The U.S’ incarceration system may currently seem problematic, but by following examples set by other nations and by altering their mindset of what a prison should do and be, correctional facilities in the country could also invoke renewal instead of torture and punishment.

Dreisinger, Baz. ‘I Toured Prisons around the World — and the System That Seems the Most Relaxed Is Also One That Works’. Business Insider. Accessed 28 December 2020.

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