Crime in America: Imprison Me Once, Shame on Me

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With the incessant talk of global competitiveness and the importance of keeping up with other developed nations, it’s nice to know there the United States still exudes excellence in a few matters of punitive and legislative housekeeping.

Namely, we are good at locking people up, and — upon their release — bringing them back to prison in no time flat! Yes, by all appearances, our imprisonment and recidivism rates are the ones to beat, and just because someone serves their time doesn’t mean they’re actually off the hook.

El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, Oklahoma (YouTube)
El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, Oklahoma (YouTube)

Why? Well, it’s prison! It’s not the Hilton. You don’t just “check out,” hoard your complimentary face soap, and grab some continental breakfast as you walk out the door. Forget the land of the free and the home of the brave. Home of those enslaved is catchy too! After all, just because someone wasn’t handed a life sentence, doesn’t mean they won’t essentially walk out with one.

At this point, you’ve hopefully caught on to the fact that this is all a ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek, over the top, lambasting take on our prison system’s current state of affairs.

Sentencing and Lockup: Deliver Us From Evil — by Hiding It

On a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver covered the asinine and self-defeating system that makes up the web of U.S. Federal Correctional Institutions. (“Correctional Institution” — How’s that for a great euphemism?) Interestingly enough, I was already planning to write on this topic as I know someone affected, and — in a way — I am thus affected as well. For years, I’ve been privy to a genuine, up close and personal look at the ins and outs of lawmaking as it concerns prisoners. I’ve heard about the treatment of prisoners, I’ve seen how poorly written legislation can turn a potential misdemeanor into a Class B felony, and I’ve seen how someone with drug charges and hospital records declaring them as indisputably mentally ill can be looped in with the most deplorable, dangerous and socially deviant members of society.

Frankly, if it were all written in fiction, or if we saw a few of these cases on our ever popular “crime driven” television shows, we would call it a farce. We would say “How far-fetched! No one would be able to turn *Crime A* into *Crime B.* No one could convince a judge to turn five minutes of a personal dispute (where no one was harmed, mind you) into a prison sentence spanning over a decade!” But there are no bounds to the stupidity of vague, all-encompassing laws, and there is no cessation of poor judgment when it comes to the appropriate and constructive measures to be taken for those who have disregarded those laws.

Post Prison Punishment:
“We realize you’ve already spent some time in purgatory. Now, welcome to Hell!”

Now, to be clear: If you break the law, you should pay. No one should be an exception to the laws, and if they are poorly written we need only to fix them. But once you’ve paid for your crime, that should be enough. There ought to be a fighting chance at living a law-abiding life post-prison release. Paying for crimes you haven’t yet committed seems not only unfair, but counter-productive.

Far Side

That being said, the early release laws that allow for those with drug-related offenses to get out a few years earlier than their original sentences demanded caught the attention of the nation, and Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver covered the issue with his usual insightful wit and entertainingly informative style.

Not only did Oliver point out the non-violent nature of the charges, but he emphasized the stupidity of our job market’s current attitude towards those who have already served their time for felonies. For many who serve their time, getting out of prison isn’t the beginning of a new life or a fresh start. It’s an uphill battle to continually prove that they aren’t the same person they were when they committed the original crime. They struggle to even get a job interview, let alone an actual position. They are expected to pay their parole officers and work with that professional’s schedule, regardless of how impossible this may be with the work hours they manage to procure for themselves.

And those are all excellent points. It’s not about excusing a crime. We didn’t just say, “Oh, it’s all right. But don’t do it again!” No, we put them in prison. They served their time. They were released.

So why do we harp on the past in this one particular area, yet lend forgiveness to our politicians, public figures, and actors (one and the same, actually)? I’ve got three reasons bouncing around in my head:

(1) Poorly worded legislature,
(2) A confusion of subjective morality, societal ethics, and dumbass legal loopholes,
(3) The prison-industrial complex.

John Oliver on Last Week Tonight (YouTube)
John Oliver on Last Week Tonight (YouTube)

Legislation of Less-Than-Stellar Wording
(e.g. Define “stellar”)

First, I’ll give examples of legislative issues. Take the Sex Abuse in the First Degree charges in the states of Washington and Oregon. In Washington, each term is clearly defined. In fact, they have a link sending you to a list of definitions for words and terminology such as: “sexual contact; married; mental incapacity; sexual intercourse; forcible compulsion; consent; physically helpless; significant relationship; etc.”

All of these are terms used somewhere in Sex Abuse charges, and are thus extremely relevant. It’s absolutely necessary to define them, and (even more importantly) to draw distinctions between one crime (child molestation of a minor) and another (sexual coercion, falling under general sex abuse). In Oregon, there are no such definitions for heavily weighted and potentially vague terminology, and the sentencing guidelines for such charges are written thusly, on

Sex Abuse First Degree

(1) A person commits the crime of sexual abuse in the first degree when that person:
(a) Subjects another person to sexual contact and:
(A) The victim is less than 14 years of age; (B) The victim is subjected to forcible compulsion by the actor; or (C) The victim is incapable of consent by reason of being mentally defective, mentally incapacitated or physically helpless;
(b) Intentionally causes a person under 18 years of age to touch or contact the mouth, anus or sex organs of an animal for the purpose of arousing or gratifying the sexual desire of a person.
(2) Sexual abuse in the first degree is a Class B felony.
[Laws were enacted in 1991 and 1995]

Hypothetically speaking, someone who has handled the genitals of a child will be handed the same sentence as someone who forcibly pressed themselves on their former partner. And “sexual contact” could be defined as loosely as an unwanted kiss, in Oregon’s playbook. I’m not defending any forced sexual contact (far, far from it), but I’m saying that I’d be far more alarmed by the presence of a criminally-charged child molester than someone’s abusive ex-boyfriend.

However, according to Oregon lawmakers, someone with one count of sex abuse (with charges pushed by an ex, with no proof and no witnesses) will be treated as the legal equivalent as someone with multiple charges of child sex abuse (with evidence and witnesses, including minors old enough to give a detailed account of the incidents).

Neither will be allowed around children. Both will have to register as a sex offender. Both will be unable to work for companies within certain distances from schools and childcare centers. These laws will apply to both offenders, despite their obvious irrelevance to one of those offenders. And under current legislation, an appeal will not be possible for five years.

President Barack Obama meetings with nonviolent drug offenders at El Reno Federal Corrections Institution, Oklahoma (VICE YouTube)
President Barack Obama meetings with nonviolent drug offenders at El Reno Federal Corrections Institution, Oklahoma (VICE YouTube)

If someone has served their sentence and is a registered sex offender, they are already (rightly so) regarded as having committed one of the more atrocious offenses known to man. If they have truly violated someone’s body, that is deplorable. And that’s why laws need to recognize the important distinctions between violation and coercion, child abuse and domestic disputes.

Essentially, laws like this don’t just hurt former inmates; they hurt families who suddenly have to choose between allowing their grandchildren, nieces and nephews over for the holidays, or helping their loved one get back on their feet. That seems fairly criminal.

Morality, Ethics, and Stupidity All Walk Into a Bar …

It’s easy to confuse morals and ethics, and to turn a blind eye to the foolish legalities that promote such confusion. Let’s look again at the Washington and Oregon state laws for inspiration.

Under Oregon law, Kidnapping in the Second Degree is much more leniently defined than the more overt and violent Kidnapping the First Degree. Although a second-degree charge is obviously less severe, the ambiguity here doesn’t quite make sense. A second-degree charge of kidnapping is defined as being an incident where someone “without consent or legal authority” does one or both of the following:
“…takes the person from one place to another…”
“…secretly confines the person in a place where the person is not likely to be found.”


Wait, wait … Hold on. The person who gags and ties up a victim, puts them in their trunk, drives them to an unknown location, and keeps them there for a period of time could be handed the same charges as someone who grabs someone’s arm and drags them from the house to the front yard whilst loudly arguing? (If I’d have known that, I would never have let my mom get away with making me attend summer camps.)

Again, Washington gives a thorough list of definitions for words like “abduct,” “restrain,” and “serious harm,” just to name a few. This leaves less room for slippery-slope sentencing and excessive charges that do not match the crime.

Seriously though, the ethical debate in such a case could be solved if the wording of these laws took into account the subjectivity of an individual judge’s morals (rather important, as they’ll be doing the final sentencing), and then carefully spelled out the expected social repressions (ethical expectations) of someone charged with any form of Kidnapping.

Prison Profiteering

People are familiar with the facts of pharmaceutical companies profiting off disease, and we know that many stand to profit from war. We don’t, however, stop to think much about how the role of money in our prisons.

First of all, we have the little issue of occupancy quotas. Yup, many prisons in the United States have contracts requiring an occupancy of at least 90 percent, as seen in the graphic below.

Huff-Po graph

The Arizona Republic cited documents proving that a private Arizona prison had a state agreement to pay in accordance with a “97 percent occupancy clause,” established to keep the prison as close to maximum capacity as possible. Despite obvious deficiencies in prisoner treatment and provisions, the Arizona Department of Corrections agreed, and found themselves in hot water with residents, inmates and a 2011 report published by Huffington Post writer Chris Kirkham. They were blasted for their private contractor agreements and resulting problems, such as escapees and a “dysfunctional” environment.

Furthermore, Ray Downs of VICE online magazine wrote an entire piece on those who profit from the prison industrial complex. Hint: It’s likely someone you know. Pulling from NASDAQ (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations) data, he found an unsettling number of top investors seeking their fortunes through Corrections Corporation of America and other such groups within the detention center umbrella. As of 2013, private investor Henri Wedell “owns more than 650,000 shares in the company, which is far more successful these days,” reports Downs. “Those shares are worth more than $25 million.” And he’s just one example. Another example is … surprise … two of the primary 401 (k) providers: The Vanguard Group and Fidelity Investments. They are top investors in CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO (Geo Group Inc).

That’s right. If you’ve got a 401 (k) plan, it’s very likely that these prison investments are trickling down to you.

The Final Sentence

This is madness.

Top photo from Federal Bureau of Prisons

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President Obama visiting El Reno Federal Correctional Institution. He is the first sitting president to visit inside a prison with inmates.

John Oliver from Last Week Tonight