prison system

THE SYSTEM HAS TO CHANGE: An Overview of how Being Incarcerated Perpetuates Recidivism: Jail Edition, by Richard Kirkham

In my last post I broke down the costs of Mass Incarceration In America. Now let’s look at what being incarcerated in America looks like, and how it perpetuates recidivism. Our focus here is on City and County Jails, we’ll get to Prisons later.

Jails are terrible. They shouldn’t be kiddie camps, but they SHOULD promote positive growth and change, Our Jails do not. They SHOULD be safe environments with opportunities for prisoners to begin correcting their thinking and behaviors. Our Jails are not.

Think about what being in Jail implies, what it would mean for YOU… You’ve made a mistake or been accused of a crime. You’re embarrassed, anxious, ashamed, angry… Your home, job, vehicle, bills, pets, family, obligations, etc., are now uncertain and subject to loss. Contact with the outside world is severely restricted. Everything that you know and are used to, your routines and habits, all of them are gone. Don’t just read this, try and feel it so you can understand. Being arrested and placed in Jail is a mentally and emotionally traumatizing experience.

Many Jails keep prisoners locked down most of the day. So all they can do is sit in their cells and think about all of the implications above. I know from experience the guilt and shame that comes from being arrested, and without positive avenues to transform them, they can turn into anger, resentment and depression. 

In order to call home your people on the outside have to set up a prepaid account. Many families of prisoners can’t afford to do so, or don’t know how. In my experience, phones are usually in disrepair, crowded and in use, or glitchy, making calling home frustrating or difficult if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford the calls.

Jails have books, but most of them are novels, purely for entertainment, so prisoners just “entertain” themselves instead of growing and changing. Typically there are cards and dominoes and a shared TV in the dayroom, but beyond that, prisoners in Jail just sit, not participating in anything productive or worthwhile.

There are some opportunities to work in Jail, but they pay nothing remember the 13th Amendment? So prisoners in Jail, even if they haven’t been convicted of a crime yet, have to work for free, and have no opportunity to earn or save money to prepare to return to society. Prisoners release broke and behind on every financial obligation in their lives.

Jails cram you into a cell with at least one other person, or into dorms with dozens, not caring if they’re highly violent and aggressive, have mental illness, or if they’re just terrible people. This adds levels of anxiety, stress and discomfort that can be too much for people to bear. It can be a frightening and even terrifying experience.

In large Jails it’s rare for a day to go by without a fight or an assault. With nothing positive to do, and the weight of incarceration heavy on their shoulders, prisoners aren’t in the best of moods. There is a lot of stress and tension, and that often results in violence. So prisoners either perpetuate violence, are subject to it, or live every moment in fear of it.

Because Jail is supposed to be temporary holding for short term stays, there are rarely any positive or beneficial programs beyond Church and NA/AA once a week for an hour or so, and GED classes in the larger Jails for those who have not yet graduated highschool. So all the troubled men and women who end up in Jail for several months or even years while they await trial have nothing to do beyond playing cards and hanging out with other troubled individuals. 

If you wonder why people spend so much time awaiting trial, you should know that our Right to a Speedy Trial is frequently bypassed by the Courts under the guise of “The Interests of Justice”. The 60-90 days the prosecutor has to bring a prisoner to trial is almost always continued for several months. 

Here’s this place where we send all manner of people for reasons ranging from petty crime to brutal attacks and everything in between. We give them no access to counseling, self-help books and tools, education or work, and no other positive outlets . We restrict their communication with their loved ones and support systems, so much so that many prisoners can’t afford to make a single call home. They are subjected to indifference and hostility from guards, and aggression and violence from other prisoners. They live in fear, wallow in depression, or become aggressive and violent as a defense mechanism. This turns into bitterness and resentment towards the System and authority, and leads to antisocial habits and behaviors in their lives.

Regardless of whether a prisoner is guilty or not, they understand they are being mistreated, that the environment they are caged in isn’t humane. The injustices bring about their naturally negative feelings and emotions. 

The reality is that the majority of people who enter Jail have existing social, addiction, emotional, mental or criminal problems, and their issues are ignored and/or exacerbated while they are in. They then get released into worse and more difficult life circumstances than they had when they entered Jail. They are behind on bills, potentially have lost jobs and homes, have strained or broken relationships, and have suffered unique and traumatizing mental and emotional stresses. The result is that these prisoners get out bitter, broken, and angry, and its no surprise they can’t succeed. 

That’s a very brief overview of incarceration in Jail in America. It doesn’t really cover half of the problems that Jails have, but it gives us a taste of being in Jail, and shows why our System perpetuates recidivism. Before we can work to Change the System, we must first understand it and know why it doesn’t work. I have more to say, so stay tuned.

Wishing you the best in Life, Luck, and Love.

Richard Kirkham

DOC #756060

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