Punishing American Prisoners: No Dignity Allowed

As I neared the end of my stay at the Herlong Prison Camp, I realized that I didn’t like participating in furloughs. The so-called freedom I experienced was trumped by a self-realization that I was nothing more than free labor. I didn’t mean a thing to these people and all the hard work I did was truly unappreciated. I didn’t earn more respect or validate my dignity by working for them either. I get that inmates are being punished for their crimes, but that’s why they’re locked up. That’s the punishment, being taken away from family and friends, losing your stable income and the possibility of ever finding it again, as well as forfeiting any accomplishments you may have gained beforehand. It’s belittling, to say the least. To add insult to injury, prisons encourage inside labor and menial wages; they literally pay you a couple cents per day. If your post-prison goals don’t seem logical and reasonable to their administrators, then they’ll bluntly tell you how stupid and unrealistic your dreams are. Recidivism is high most likely because American prisons go beyond punishing criminals by stripping them of their dignity.

Dignity is the state of being worthy of honor and respect. It’s something that shouldn’t be lost during disciplinary action. Everyone agrees that telling young children they’re worthless for making mistakes is detrimental to the psyche of that child. Furthermore, it doesn’t help their self-esteem or the likelihood that they’ll have the confidence to shoot for the stars. The same is true for adults, criminal or law-abiding citizen. The lost of self-worth only leads to further problems in an inmate’s life, especially when they are released. Yet, American prisons seem to reduce the dignity of prisoners when they break up families, belittle inmates and their feelings, and invade their privacy.

In my book, Subprime Felon, I mention how most white collar criminals complained about their new harsh reality. They compared it to Europe’s prison system, which apparently allows home visits on the weekends. It seems American prisons aim to disrupt families by creating broken homes and relationships. Many inmates are sent far away from their families which makes it difficult to keep in contact. When I went into camp, I lost the ability to contact my family and friends at my leisure or on social media. The Trufone (telephone), TRULINCS, and mailing letters were the only ways I could talk to them. Family members had to create phone accounts and add money to it in order to talk to their loved ones. I had to pay for every email sent to them. When funds run out, so did the conversation. Unfortunately, funds are quickly depleted with just a few conversations. Also, most of my friends didn’t feel comfortable talking to me over the phone because it was recorded, and they didn’t know if the government was keeping their numbers on file. Other friends and family didn’t answer unknown or blocked calls, and when I called them, the caller ID would say either “blocked” or “unknown.”

Traveling is expensive and visiting hours are restricted to certain days. Visiting was out of my parent’s price range, so needless to say, I didn’t receive many visits. Nearing my release, I received only ninety days in a halfway house instead of six months. When I asked why they stated that I had a strong family connection and didn’t need as much assistance as other inmates. Perhaps the reason why other inmates didn’t have a strong connection could be due to the significant limitations to keeping in contact with family.

When an American prisoner is unable to visit familiar faces or talk to those who they’ve previously created a bond with, trouble can begin. Most often depression and guilt sets in. I know I’ve experienced this. I wondered how I got myself into this situation and blamed myself for my family estrangement. It was painful because I didn’t have the choice to spend the time I wanted to with my friends and family. That choice was made for me, and I was the only person to blame for it. I couldn’t help but to think of hugging and kissing and laughing with everyone at home. Not to mention, I was full of regret. I tried to focus on what I was going to do when I was released, but a counselor advised me that my dream of becoming a blogger and a writer was unrealistic. She wouldn’t even entertain the thought with me and offer suggestions. Instead, she claimed writers don’t make a lot of money. She also implied that writing wasn’t a skill that could keep me out of prison.  The meeting was a shocker, to say the least, and certainly didn’t help my self-esteem.

Dignity According to an article on Business Insider Australia, inmates in Europe’s prison system are treated like humans and not property. The correctional officers knock on cell doors before opening, have their own keys to their cells, and separate toilets. Prisoners can make their own schedules and are allowed to visit family on weekends. They are also allowed to vote while in prison and receive certain welfare benefits. They don’t throw away young adult lives by giving them life in prison if they commit a crime while underage (even if they’re 18 to 21) and solitary confinement is rarely used.

At the end of the day, an inmate still has to have some type of dignity. Dignity is the foundation of self-esteem and the fuel for confidence. Being treated with respect means that you have value in this world. Maybe dignity is the starting point of reducing recidivism. Either way, the article said it best, “there are better, more humane ways to respond to rule breaking.”