For several decades the United States has relied on mass incarceration as a tool for criminal justice, mental health treatment, and economic stimulus. The result is a prison population that dwarfs that of any other developed country yet has shown no corresponding positive benefits in crime deterrence, mental health, or economic benefits. The prison industrial complex has wasted billions of dollars and destroyed millions of lives. Decarcerating America, a series of essays edited by Ernest Drucker, is an admirably comprehensive and insightful attempt to address this problem.
Decarcerating America approaches the problem of mass incarceration from a variety of perspectives. Contributors include public health professionals, professors, policy advocates, and researchers. That more than one writer featured was a prison inmate is a testament to the book’s approach to prison reform: listening to the voices of the currently and formerly incarcerated and taking what they say seriously.
The solutions proposed throughout Decarcerating America are serious and aggressive; Drucker opens the book by stating that the goal of decarceration is cutting the prison population of the United States in half. Not surprisingly, drug policy reform is discussed in depth absolutely crucial to any decarceration strategy. Gabriel Sayegh, founder of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, argues compellingly in favor decriminalization of all drugs.
The five authors of an essay on post-incarceration harm reduction lay out the evidence against strict abstinence-based rehabilitation programs, which often do more harm than good. By punishing addicted individuals for relapses that are a part of the recovery process, these mandated programs only serve to punish people, rather than help them. The authors propose a more personal, tailored approach to helping drug addicted individuals take control of their lives.
Several of the writers point out that many prison reform proposals focus exclusively on non-violent offenders, especially those convicted of drug crimes. Not only would this fall well short of the goal of a 50 percent reduction, but it dehumanizes those convicted of violent crimes, who tend to have been the victims of violence themselves, and who often suffer with drug addiction and mental illness. Drastic reform in sentence length for all crimes, and a more effective parole system, are essential to real progress.
In particular, parole decisions made based on risk calculation, not the seriousness of the crime committed, would be far more fair, effective, and humane. Mujahid Farid, of the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign, points out that the recidivism rate for people over fifty when they are released from New York prisons is one eighth that of the overall rate, a fact that is not taken into account by parole boards. Releasing almost all of those prisoners would drastically reduce prison spending without risking a rise in crime.
If the goal of prison is rehabilitation, prisoners must be given a voice in how they are treated and how prisons can most effectively prepare them for their next steps. Humane treatment of prisoners will make an enormous difference. Elizabeth Gaynes and Tanya Krupat, of The Osborne Association, explore the impact that prison sentences have on the children of the incarcerated. Sending people to prisons hundreds of miles from home and not allowing in-person visits from family increases recidivism rates and has serious, long-term consequences on the mental health of children unable to see their parents.
Who is benefiting from this system? In the last essay of the book, author and activist Eric Lotke looks at the local economic incentives for prisons. Prisons seem to be appealing investments for small towns in rural areas, since they provide steady jobs for local citizens. However, because they do not attract other investments, and can even dissuade other companies from moving to those towns, soon the town becomes entirely reliant on the prison and is loath to let it close.
Decarcerating America is a fascinating and enlightening read for anyone who believes that the prison industrial complex needs to be dismantled. And it offers hope. Multiple contributors contend that while the Trump Administration and its “law and order” approach to crime is deeply troubling, progress can still be made at the local, state, and even federal level. By instituting policies that are proven to be effective and incorporate the voices of incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated individuals, the massive American prison system, and the damage it does, could one day be a thing of the past.
A Review by Tom Houseman