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What is the purpose of prisons?

I recently watched a film called Circles by Shanti Thakur that discussed an alternative form of sentencing, called Circle Sentencing, used with Aboriginal offenders. In this process, the focus is on healing the community, offender, and victims. This film made me ponder a few very important questions about the prison system.

Throughout these past few weeks of doing interviews with individuals involved in the prison system, the police department, and rehabilitation efforts, I’ve started to question what really is the true purpose of the prison system?

When someone makes a mistake, should they be punished for it? What is the goal of this punishment? To make them feel guilty? To separate them from the rest of the people who didn’t make mistakes (or were not caught for the mistakes that they made)?

Let’s say that it is to make them feel guilty for what they did. After they feel guilty, then what? Some of these people may feel guilt for mistakes that they had done, while others may not believe that what they did was wrong. When it comes to those who are convicted of drug offenses, I wonder how many actually feel guilty.

There are a multitude of reasons why someone may commit a crime. Looking at the most common offenses in the Northampton County Corrections Facility, many of those who are imprisoned are in fact there for minor drug offenses. Some may say they sold drugs to provide for their family. Others may have an addiction. But how often do we really delve deep into the root of the problem?

For those who sold drugs to provide for their family, we should instead ask:

  1. Why did these individuals choose to sell drugs as opposed to finding an alternative source of income?
    1. Some may not have the skills required (how to make a resume, how to interview for a position, how to network) to obtain a job.
    2. Some may have been imprisoned in the past and are discriminated against when they apply for new jobs (checking the box).
    3. Maybe another reason?

For those who have an addiction, the question should instead be:

  1. How can we help this person?
    1. Is imprisonment really a solution to drug addiction? (Probably not.)
    2. Is the goal to punish for addiction or cure addiction?

After looking deeper, maybe putting them away isn’t the best sustainable solution to the problem. Maybe there should be other methods put in place so that the offender is well equipped to find a solution themselves. But after they are provided those resources, how much responsibility should be put on each previous offender? Should we hold their hands every step of the way and insure that they have found a solution? Should we wait to see if they are able to figure it out themselves? Is there a middle ground —- and if so, what might this look like?

For communities, victims, and families of the offender, we should instead ask:

  1. Are they seeking forgiveness or retribution?
  2. Which of these is more beneficial to the community?

It’s a difficult question to answer. Because we currently live in a society where retribution is valued over forgiveness, it’s easy to immediately say that people should suffer the consequences of their actions. But, when offenders do suffer the consequences of their actions, many others are also forced to deal with those consequences.

Posted in Community – Empowerment, Community – Government & Rights, Human Rights, Justice System, Policing & law enforcement, Restorative Justice,

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