Addicted to incarceration

Our community has two facilities that are designed for the incarceration of people who have committed crimes. Our county jail, which also houses prisoners for the state and federal court systems, is a large facility with many state of the art features. It is perpetually full, in part because it is also used to house those who have been charged with crimes as they await trial. Another facility, specifically designed to detain youth aged 11 to 20 also is a part of our community. This facility also houses local, state and federal detainees. Both are fully accredited facilities and a great deal of time and money has been invested in making sure that they comply with all of the regulations regarding detaining individuals. Both employ fairly large numbers of guards, control room operators, nurses, and other workers. In addition, the juvenile facility has a fully-functioning school with teachers who work under the administrative umbrella of the local school district.

The original idea of keeping a person confined to a single building or set of buildings was not itself considered to be punishment for crimes. Prior to the 18th century, most crimes were punished by corporal punishment. The concept was that if you caused a person physical pain such as being beaten with a whip, the person would be deterred from future similar behavior. The most serious crimes were punished by death. Prisons didn’t need to be very large because they were designed for temporary housing until punishment could be completed.

A British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, was opposed to the death penalty and created the concept of a prison that itself would be the punishment for a crime. His concept was that if people were kept isolated in an austere setting they would be forced to contemplate the error of their ways. His ideal of a penitentiary, or a place for penance, included isolating inmates from each other and from the guards. If a detainee did not know how many guards were in the facility and if they didn’t know when they were being directly watched and when they were not, they would become peaceful because of the threat of overwhelming force.

By the 19th century prison were being built for the sole purpose of housing inmates. Those who were sent to prison and stripped of their freedom were no longer able to commit crimes and thus the facility deterred crimes by locking people up. From that time, there have been intense debates about whether or not prisons serve to reform those who have committed crimes. Some people feel that fear of being locked up deters crimes. Some believe that the experiences in prison can help to reform criminals and make them less likely to commit other crimes.

Most of the corrections officers I know are convinced that despite the programs of social and psychological examinations, educational programs and other opportunities offered by corrections facilities, those who are incarcerated run a very high rate of recidivism. They often expect to see those who are freed from incarceration to return at some point in the future.

I am certainly no expert when it comes to incarceration. I am merely a chaplain to those who serve in corrections facilities. What I do know is that incarceration is not an effective treatment for addiction and our facilities are filled with people who have various kinds of addictions.

I realize that there aren’t many people in our community who want to discuss the philosophy of anything, let alone the philosophy of incarceration, but our facilities are full of people whose crimes are the result of addiction. In South Dakota consumption of a controlled substance is a crime and you can be convicted of possession by consumption. That means that there are people in our jail facilities whose crime was not something over which that person had control, but something that was beyond their capacity to control. Addicts do not have the capacity to control their addictions. It is not a choice. Addicts are aware that their addiction is causing them harm, but they are powerless to stop the behavior. The cause of addiction is not a series of bad choices, even though addiction may come after a series of bad choices. The cause of addiction is pain. People experience trauma. They seek pleasure to counter the pain in their lives. Some of the pleasures they find cause tremendous harm to themselves and others. And they cannot escape their addictions.

A common example of this is methamphetamine addiction. For most users, the initial use of the stimulant produces the most intense “high” that they will ever experience with the drug. From that point forward they continue to seek that intense pleasure but it eludes them. The intense pain and depression that follows the drug, however, persists. They take more of the substance to try to drag themselves out of the hole of withdrawal that follows the drug. The cycle continues and they do not have the capacity to “choose” to stop. The pain is too intense. Some meth addicts can become temporarily detoxed by incarceration. If we lock them up without access to the drug they do get some of the effects out of their system. The underlying pain, however, remains and as soon as they are released from incarceration they seek more of the substance in a hopeless effort to end the pain.

There is, however, a societal appeal of removing people with intense problems from public view. Locking them up in jails and prisons is one way of removing them from sight. However, when we don’t solve the underlying problems, the problems increase. The number of people who are incarcerated continues to increase. Here in South Dakota we have roughly 25,000 people or about 3 percent of our population locked in prisons and jails. The crime rate in South Dakota is below the national average, but our incarceration rate is nearly twice the national average. The more we lock people in facilities, the more we need to lock them in facilities. Our social problem functions exactly like an addiction.

Building more jails and prisons will not solve our problem. If we could realize that, we might develop more compassion for those whose addictions can’t be solved by obtaining more of the substance they abuse.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!