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The penitentiary system that punishes criminals is nowadays a part of any state. The American penal system, however, is known around the world for the large number of individuals that go through it as convicts all the time. In addition, the people who have been convicted of committing a crime in the U.S. face a number of significant problems. Some of the most important of these problems are related to the overall difficulty of re-integrating back into society (due to a number of reasons). This is, in particular, due to the inability to find an appropriate job (or, rather often, any job at all), and to the overall social stigma that ex-prisoners have. These problems are usually exacerbated by the origins of the prisoners; most of them come from low-income families (or communities other than families), are people of color, suffer from various disabilities, and so on. In other words, it might be stated that these people come from those strata or social groups that occupy lower (or even the lowest) positions in society than the others. Clearly, this further worsens the chances of ex-prisoners having good or even satisfactory outcomes after leaving prison.
Therefore, it is of paramount importance to address the barriers that ex-convicts are faced by when they leave prison. In particular, it will be claimed that the American penal system is rather imperfect and that one of its major today is the problem of re-integrating of ex-prisoners back into society. It will also be claimed that the penitentiary system in the U.S. requires significant reformation. The nature of some difficulties of re-integrating criminals into society will also be exposed.
Some individuals might say the U.S. is a country in which the penitentiary system is the most effective in the world – if by “effectiveness” one understands the number of persons who are penalized for offenses, relatively to the total number of population. The U.S. occupies the first position in the world by the population of prisons; the prison population in the country is nearly 2.2 million people, or approximately 0.74% of the total federation’s population (BBC News n. pag.). These tremendous numbers are stated to have their roots in the last decades of the 20th century when deindustrialization and mass immigration that took place in the U.S. led to the sudden and dramatic rise in the rates of structural unemployment (that is, one caused by the structural changes in the society rather than e.g. by economic cycles); it is stressed that the state and federal authorities utilized the strategy aimed at stigmatization and mass incarceration of the poor and the unemployed, which allowed for lowering the degree of challenge that the jobless and outraged citizens would otherwise pose to those in power (Abu-Jamal and Fernández 1-2).
This was accompanied by the promotion of the ideology of a “self-made person” that is still popular today. According to it, the success of an individual (as well as the failure) is solely their achievement (or fault). The plain fact that a daughter of a 13-year-old Black girl who run away from her home after being raped by a family member has overwhelmingly lower chances to go to college or to become a member of the parliament than a son of a tycoon, and similarly overwhelmingly higher chances to become a prostitute as a child, and then to go to prison, somehow often remains overlooked. In fact, some people seem to sincerely believe that the daughter of the 13-year-old girl became a prostitute solely because she was lazy, spoilt, and had not wanted to study properly at school, whereas the son of a tycoon became an MP or a CEO of his father’s business solely because he was brilliant, hard-working, and a true leader. In any case, the ideology of a self-made person was one of the factors that allowed for the public acceptance of the belief that the prisoners of the American prisons are just where they should be.
The exponential rise of the population of the American prisons that took place in the last decades of the 20th century has had profound effects on the situation today; it is known that the U.S., the motherland of liberty, in spite of the fact of being a home for less than 5% of the world’s total population, contains 25% of the world’s population of prisons (Abu-Jamal and Fernández 2; Liptak n. pag.). The population of the U.S. prisons, rather unsurprisingly, consists mainly of the poor, as well as of people of color (Western and Muller 167; Abu-Jamal and Fernández 1-2); the representatives of these social groups are those who suffered most from the deindustrialization that took place in the last centuries of the 20th century, and the mass incarceration was aimed at them more than at anyone else, in fact, promoting social and ethnic racism that still exists today, even if the legal system retains the appearance of an anti-racist one and implements the use of such euphemistic concepts as the notion of the “politically correct language.”
One of the aspects that should be considered in order to address the dire situation that convicts find themselves in is the problem of reintegration of ex-prisoners into society. Even if one believes that the sentences in the U.S. are just, they should be able to see that ex-felons ought to be given a chance to build a life that could be called “normal,” rather than simply thrown out in the world where they only face stigmatization and contempt. It seems clear that one of the aspects which are necessary for having a “normal” life is the possibility to find a job, which is often either significantly limited or almost absent for ex-convicts. In addition, numerous other barriers pertaining to the fact of being an ex-prisoner should be lifted if ex-felons are to properly re-integrate into society.
This is why the main claim of this paper is that the penal system in the U.S. is rather imperfect and needs to undergo a substantial reformation and that one of the significant issues pertaining to the problems of the system is the question of how to organize the reintegration of ex-prisoners into the society.
The First Sub claim
The first sub claim that might be offered in relation to the proposed claim is that there exist too many obstacles that hinder or prevent the re-integration of ex-felons into society. Some of these barriers are related to what the ex-convicts are allowed or not allowed to do; for instance, ex-prisoners may not be permitted to take part in numerous activities, which also significantly limits their ability to find a job. For example, the American Bar Association gathered a list of nearly 45,000 legal regulations that do not allow ex-felons to participate in various activities. Of course, some of these regulations may be reasonable; for instance, it appears justified not to let a child abuser work as a teacher or a babysitter. At the same time, most of these directions seem to have little sense or no sense at all; for example, ex-convicts are sometimes not permitted to work as hairdressers (Dewan par. 10).
Simultaneously, the very fact of having a criminal record creates a serious obstacle for ex-prisoners to find a job. An individual with a criminal record almost instantly earns an extremely adverse reputation and loses a significant percentage of the chance to find proper employment. Employers are most commonly permitted by the law to access the information about the prior convictions or arrests of a job applicant, and are allowed to turn away a potential employer if they believe – or are able to argue, though it might be supposed in most cases it may not be needed, for the stereotypes about ex-convicts are rather widespread (Freudenberg 1732) – that the applicant may not be trusted to carry out duties that they will have to perform as a part of the job that they are applying for (Graves par. 5).
Of course, this direction may seem reasonable, for, even though the ex-convicts are usually victims of social circumstances, they, nevertheless, may often be corrupted by these circumstances. At the same time, while definitely offering protection to employers, it leaves the ex-prisoners with even lower chances to find employment. It was already emphasized that most of the prisons’ population come from low-income social groups, as well as from people of color, for whom it is hard to find a proper job even without a criminal record (Brown 16-17). The criminal record, therefore, significantly exacerbates the situation of the members of these social groups and further stimulates them to turn to crime.
Thus, the problem of criminal records and similar practices needs to be addressed if ex-convicts are to be given chances to lead a “normal” life. Instead of simply limiting their opportunities which are already few, the prospect of providing them with legal support from the state appears to be able to prove significantly more efficacious if it is properly designed and implemented. At least the negative support (i.e., one that is not providing opportunities but is simply removing barriers) is necessary as a program minimum.
The Second Sub claim
Thus, the second sub claim follows. The crux of it is that the legal system should strive to provide more opportunities to ex-convicts. As it was already stated, many ex-prisoners come from the lower strata of society and from families or other communities that have low levels of income. Therefore, it is hard for them to find employment even without a criminal record. This warrants the claim that positive legal support (i.e., one that provides opportunities and not simply removes barriers) is also needed for ex-prisoners.
First, limiting the access to the criminal records of an individual might prove useful for ex-felons. It is doubtful that employers suffer much from hiring an ex-convict as their employee; simultaneously, ex-prisoners undoubtedly suffer profound losses of opportunities due to the possibility of potential employers accessing their records. In addition, the access to the records maintains the stigma that an ex-convict suffers from and does not allow one to build a new identity – for instance, that of a law-abiding citizen (Larrauri 50). Thus, because the potential benefit of limiting the access to criminal records appears to provide much more benefit than allowing this access, it appears reasonable to limit the access of the employers to one’s criminal records.
Next, it appears to be beneficial if ex-prisoners were offered employment opportunities immediately or soon after leaving the prison. It is possible to introduce legislation that would oblige the penal system to provide ex-convicts with a job according to the skills that the latter possess. Definitely, such efforts will require additional funding, but it seems clear that it is better to help individuals to find a decent job rather than to pay for their additional stay in prison after they had to resort to crime due to the inability to find proper work. This might bring especially significant benefits to women and people of color, as the representatives of these groups are often even more disadvantaged than poor but White men when it comes to seeking employment (Brown 2).
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And, finally, it might be recommended to provide the individuals who are currently in prison with training that might provide them with skills that are necessary for a particular profession. Because most of the prison population comes from the lower strata of society, they often have few resources to obtain education on their own. Therefore, such training might significantly increase their chances of finding a proper job and successfully re-integrating into society. This may be especially beneficial for imprisoned adolescents, for these might not have had the chance to finish high school.
The Third Sub claim
It is also clear that ex-convicts face numerous other issues, apart from the problems with finding employment. For instance, stigmatization has already been mentioned; other difficulties include disabilities, substance use, mental problems, and many others (Burchfield and Mingus 109; Shdaimah and Bailey-Kloch 290). The third sub claim is that these problems also ought to be addressed by the penal system, and that, in fact, the very penal system should be reformed. Of course, it might be hard for the penal system to properly address the issue of ex-criminals stigmatization. On the other hand, it is possible to deal with the problems of substance use and mental illnesses. This can be accomplished by collaborating with specialists in the sphere of medicine.
In fact, it might be proposed to introduce an alternative concept of prison. Currently, prison is an institution that punishes criminals. Some will argue that it also plays a preventive role, for instance, by intimidating people who may wish to commit a crime with the prospect of imprisonment, or simply by isolating “undesirables” from society so as to keep it safe. It is stated that in the U.S., the latter concept is often preferred (McSherry and Keyzer 73-76). We have already mentioned that the current incarceration rates in the USA are a result of the dramatic increase in the number of prisoners in the last decades of the 20th century aimed at destroying the social opposition that was to emerge due to structural unemployment (Abu-Jamal and Fernández 1-2). Of course, it was necessary to develop a more appealing explanation for the high incarceration rates. One of such explanations is also widely favored today; according to it, the American penal system is aimed at neutralizing criminals and preventing even the potential offenders from committing crimes (McSherry and Keyzer 73-76). Therefore, it attempts to “neutralize” individuals even for the most minor of crimes, so that they do not commit more significant offenses.
However, it is of the essence to stop using prisons as a means of dealing with the poor and needy by regarding them as a “potential threat” to the stability of society. These people should be provided with social support, one that would also increase their chances to find a proper job. Simultaneously, prisons should be transformed from penal institutions into institutions of healing and learning, in which the convicts would be provided with a remedy, trained how to do jobs, and assisted with reintegration into society. Of course, this may be a rather distant perspective. But it is important to use such a principle as a guiding idea, rather than simply trying to punish for crimes – an approach that today might even be considered somewhat barbaric by certain people.
Possible Counterarguments and their Rebuttal
There might exist a number of possible counterarguments to our claims. For instance, as it was mentioned, some people may claim that the fact that the American penitentiary system penalizes so many people simply means that this system is extremely effective. However, it is possible to argue with this claim by citing the fact that the population of the U.S. prisons accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population, which appears to be a ridiculously large percentage, and that despite the significantly lower prison populations in other countries, these countries do not live in total chaos (Abu-Jamal and Fernández 2; Liptak n. pag.). As for the effectiveness of the penal system, it is possible to argue that the system of punishments for crimes does not constitute an effective prevention measure from crime. In fact, it is widely known that in the Middle Ages in Europe the penal system was very severe; the punishments that were employed in order to castigate the law-breakers were extremely cruel, and gruesome instruments of torture were employed on the convicts.
At the same time, such a severe system of punishment did not safeguard medieval society from crime; in fact, there was much more crime and violence in the Middle Ages than an average person in the modern world can even imagine. Therefore, it can be assumed that a penal system is not a very effective measure against crime. In fact, it should be easy to see that it deals with a crime only when it has already been committed, and does not do anything to address the circumstances that led to committing it. However, the already mentioned fact is that the majority of the population of American prisons is comprised of people of color (who are disproportionately represented in prison in comparison to the general population), and of those who are below the line of poverty. At the same time, few if any representatives of the wealthy can be found in prisons. Thus, it appears possible to state that crime is, in fact, based on social issues rather than on personal ones. That means that in order to decrease the crime rates, it is paramount to address the social problems (or other issues) that lead people to commit a crime.
Another possible counterargument to the offered proposals is related to the fact that the creation of laws and the implementation of programs aimed at assisting ex-prisoners to reintegrate into society might require a substantial financial investment. However, the tremendous population of American prisons also means that the states are forced to provide funding for these prisons. The cost-effectiveness of the whole system of prisons might be considered rather doubtful. On the other hand, the ex-prisoners who will be given the realistic chance to live as a law-abiding citizens are much more likely to do so; therefore, as a result of such programs, society might achieve an individual who is willing to work honestly. In addition, the implementation of programs aimed at the reintegration of ex-prisoners and providing them with an appropriate job may help these individuals to begin a new life instead of being forced to once again descend into crime due to the fact that they have absolutely no money and no means to earn it in an honest way. This is, perhaps, the most important issue related to this argument; in this case, it might not be appropriate to only consider the “cost-effectiveness,” for the people who are involved in the legal processes and their lives should be considered more valuable than some amounts of money.
To conclude, it should be stressed that the penitentiary system in the modern U.S., containing 25% of the world’s population of prisons, is known worldwide due to its highest incarceration rates in the world. The individuals who have been imprisoned in the USA are faced with numerous and serious problems. These problems also define most difficulties and barriers to re-integrating them into society. For instance, the social stigma that ex-convicts suffer from repels most other members of society and may cause the ex-felons to repeatedly fail while attempting to find a proper job. The social stigma is further supported by legal means; the criminal record of an ex-convict is a document that “certifies” the stigma. In addition, these people often originate from those strata of the society that are located at the bottom of the social hierarchy; the poor, the people of color often suffer from discrimination and numerous problems even without being convicted of a crime. Many of these problems have roots in the late 20th century when deindustrialization was accompanied by structural unemployment, the possible consequences of which (people demanding jobs and social justice) were “addressed” by a dramatic increase in incarceration rates.
Nowadays, however, it is important to address the current situation with American prisons. Of course, reducing the number of convictions is of primal importance. However, it is also crucial to supply ex-prisoners with legal support (for instance, to cancel or limit the right of employers to check the criminal records), to better prepare them for their future life (to assist in finding employment, to provide them with training, etc.), and to address the issues that they suffer from (for example, physical disabilities, mental illnesses, and so on).
On the whole, the American penal system requires significant reformation. First, crime rates should be addressed not by the severe penitentiary response, but by dealing with the causes of the crime (e.g., unemployment and general hopelessness that are typical of the poorer strata of the society). The prisons themselves should be turned into institutions that would provide a remedy and prepare individuals for future life. Of course, this appears to be an unrealistic aim, but it is possible to use it as a guiding idea while reforming the penitentiary system in the U.S.
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