July 29, 2013
When you’re baling at 3am on a Sunday morning and when everything is going right—no breakdowns, no mis-ties, no plug-ups—one has time to think. With half a moon lighting the morning sky and casting shadows off the hay windrows, I recalled Wednesday’s conversation. With a dozen folk sitting in the garden, the Reverend Karyn Dix led us in a conversation about the United States women’s prison system. Having spent years as a chaplain at Oregon State’s Coffee Creek Women’s Prison, Karyn asked us to consider what the modern prison system means to society in general and people of faith in particular. As bales dropped off the back of the baler one comment kept coming to mind.
Today, much of the United States prison system is no longer a public institution—In other words, today’s prison system is no longer built, organized, and operated by us-the government. Instead, we have handed over our responsibility of paying attention to those outside of society to private business. This reality puts an interesting kink in a system we might think of as just. When prisons are private and ran as businesses, justice is likely to be shuffled off to the back forty while the profit motive entices owners and stockholders to want prisons full inmates, want existing inmates to stay as long as possible, and want to enhance the incoming flow of inmates. In other words, crime pays for private prison owners and stockholders. That being the case, should we be surprised private prisons lobby our legislators for harsher sentences, mandatory minimums, and new laws?
Which leads me to Wednesday’s comment. “California, like other states has a good number of private prisons. Oregon’s constitution, though, is written in such a manner that it does not allow for private prisons. That may not have been what the writers had in mind when writing the constitution, but that is the result. Isn’t it interesting, therefore, that the recidivism rate in California is roughly ninety-seven (97) percent, while in Oregon, where there is no profit incentive to keep inmates in prison, the recidivism rate is around thirty-seven (37) percent?” Kind of sounds like that when prisons are set up to make a profit, society becomes okay with enhancing retributive justice while weakening the restorative justice which would allow our sisters and brothers to rejoin us as community. What do you think?
© David B. Bell 2013