Social and economic costs of hiding prisons under the carpet

There are facts that we tend to “hide under the carpet.” Such is the case of every type of abuses and submissions, precariousness of some certain sanitary systems, persons that live in the streets, impoverished neighborhoods, shantytowns, “slums” and favelas, as well as prisons.

In all these situations, misery, abandonments, and indignity coexist with thousands, millions of people cornered up in adversities, alienations, and distress, diverse aggressors with families seeking to survive (how presumptuous!), many anonymous heroisms, sterilized talents. These complex realities frighten, are little known, and in large part misunderstood. What we do not see, does not exist, until some fact that makes it visible occurs and then we share our opinion with binary categories.

The lines that follow focus on prisons, where people deprived of their liberty are cornered up. We explore the consequences of averting the gaze away from what happens there. Prisons are very complex spaces charged with brutalities and inequities generated, or at least enlarged, by the own judicial and penitentiary system. Prisons hardly ever are able to rehabilitate and reinsert in society those who are deprived of their liberty; rather, they tend to increase hate and create complicities with criminal groups.

One initial consideration is to understand why so many people are condemned to prison, particularly those who are guilty of minor crimes against property, such as burglaries, robberies, and thefts, drug retail, who make up good part of the overcrowding that prevails in almost every prison system. This type of crimes must be penalized but not necessarily by confining the responsible in prisons as the sole option but rather so that, persons, in the process of revising and reflecting upon committed acts, compensate for the caused damages. For example, there are work modalities outside prison that allow for not only economic but also psychologically repair the harm caused to the victims. Those are socially more effective sanctions that help recuperate those who committed minor crimes, their victims, and, at the same time, reduce the prison crowdedness. These sentences should result from a singular evaluation of each person that commits a minor crime, contrary to the mass tendency that prevails in the majority of contemporary judicial systems.

Judicial systems, with exceptions, were not able to de-mass the approach they use in investigations and sentences. The occasional reforms that try to modernize them promote the celerity of judicial process as a way of showing their effectiveness. Little emphasis is placed on, at the same time, facilitating that prosecutors and judges can fully discern the singularities of each case. The answer to the generalization of cases was stereotyping and homogenizing realities, which are essentially heterogeneous with subjective differences as well as in terms of contexts.  Therefore, the assessment of the judicial process turned away from evaluating the quality of trials, sanctions, and results to focus on the number of “solved” cases.

Imperfect judicial responses to massification of cases (the abovementioned about singularities) also left apart the circumstances in which crimes are committed, the socioeconomic context. The socioeconomic context is considered aloof to justice arguing that it is the responsibility of other State powers. It is an approach that embodies inequalities and contributes to the smear of the judicial system. More and more voices say that contextual circumstances must be considered not only by those who formulate criminal codes but also by those who interpret and apply them. A dramatic example is worth more than a thousand words: today, judicial systems convict more poor people than those with larger resources, including white-collar criminals that commit crimes much more serious against thousands of people and national patrimony.

Consequences of concealing prison reality

In a few countries there still exists death penalty, thus when a person deprived from his/her liberty serves his/her sentence, s/he returns to live and walk in the same neighborhood s/he frequented prior to the isolation. If they are people that committed minor crimes, their victims and community in general aspire that, after serving their sentences, they are rehabilitated so they do not exit prison the same or worse than before. To that end, sanction of liberty deprivation should preserve the other rights inherent to every human being so that s/he can materialize the process of reflection and comprehension of his/her responsibility in the context in which the events occurred. This can be accomplished with an adequate assistance during the time of the sentence plus an additional period after completing it. In this way, the purpose formally established for these confinements, which is seldom really achieved, could be accomplished: the reinsertion of those who committed minor crimes back to their communities.

The consequences that good part of population does not know about this problem, or is not interested in it, or simply stigmatize thousands of people that committed minor crimes affect the own society in a destructive way. The worst is that they leave prison’s space free to very dangerous groups, such as criminal organizations that recruit members in jails, securing income and “belonging” when they end their confinement. Organizations where sectors of politics mix with those of the judiciary and own security forces.

The issue of “belonging” is important to be taken into account in societies where social bonds are broken and people do not feel they belong to a community that protects and holds them. The more integrated a person is to his/her community, the more s/he respects social limits before turning to commit crimes. Prisoners who are not assisted in their achievement of rehabilitation, find such sense of belonging within criminal groups inside jail, what makes it harder to cut strings with after confinement.

Another consequence is added to these, the socioeconomic one: each person that enters the prison system implies a cost financed by the national budget or scarce local budgets; thus, it is not free to incarcerate people. The cost varies by country but in general it oscillates between 700 and 1,500 dollars a month for each person deprived of his/her liberty (jail personnel, food, medical services, electricity, water, cleaning, amortization and maintenance of jail infrastructure, etc.). These costs could be transformed in a valuable social investment if the results were positive or, if there were no better available options. Another reason to explore new types of sentences and sanctions.

The analyzed consequences, and others that should be added, are extremely serious. As it was stated, they range from mistreatments and indignities towards those who committed minor crimes to prison crowdedness, criminal re-incidence, ineffectiveness of criminal judicial system, and largest costs for the penitentiary system that must be covered with public funds.

We can finish these lines pointing out that, when there is lack of interest and social determination to address the prison problem, it only implies postponing the resolution of the social problems that generate the increased number of people deprived of their liberty in prison establishments.

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