The United States now has 2.3 million people behind bars of some form or another. These are not 2.3 million isolated individuals—their imprisonment sends reverberations into their families and communities. On any given day, 2.7 million children have a parent in prison. Incarcerating that parent removes a source of financial and emotional support for both children and adult family members. For families who are already in economically precarious situations, removing a parent can plunge them into poverty, reduce their safety, and make them more vulnerable to arrest and incarceration.
This is not to say that we don’t need interventions when harm and violence happen. But prisons have proven again and again to be an ineffective intervention. First, we must remember that incarceration is a form of punishment and incapacitation that happens after harm has occurred, not before. We must also remember that incarceration addresses only certain types of harm. People who sell drugs on the street risk arrest and imprisonment. But the same rarely applies to wealthy people like the Sackler family, who earned billions from OxyContin, the addictive painkiller launched in 1996 that spawned today’s opioid crisis. Likewise, board members and corporate executives responsible for oil spills and other environmental disasters or for precipitating economic crises rarely face handcuffs and jail time.
Danielle Sered is the founder and director of Common Justice, a program that promotes alternatives to incarceration and provides services to victims. Based in New York City, the program works with young adults facing violent felony charges, including assault and robbery, and their victims.
But what about incapacitating people who commit harm? Imprisonment does incapacitate a person, but it also rips people away from their families and communities, placing them in environments rife with chaos, abuse, and violence.
Meanwhile, rehabilitative programs, including counseling, effective drug treatment, and educational and vocational programs, are often scarce, leaving many with little to do. (During the coronavirus crisis, even these scarce programs were canceled.)
Imprisonment not only disrupts the individual person’s life but also pulls them out of their roles in their family and community. Children lose a parent; families lose a member who had helped with the bills, caregiving, and general support of the household. Those relationships tend to fray over time, particularly with lengthy incarcerations, making it less likely that the person will be able to pick up the pieces of their life upon release. In addition, a prison record can impede people from finding a job, securing housing, or being accepted to college.
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