If you want to measure the morality of a nation, just pay attention to how its treats its poor and its prisoners. Here in America, we incarcerate our citizens at a rate higher than any developed nation in the world.
Attitudes about criminal behavior differ widely in other countries. A good example is Japan. In Japan, when an person is convicted of a crime, it is viewed as a failure of Japanese society to provide the proper nurturing environment that would have molded that individual into a contributing member of the community. While they’re incarcerated, extensive steps are taken to cultivate the rehabilitation of that Japanese person. In this country, criminal behavior is perceived as a shortcoming only of the individual, and it’s the individual’s responsibility to rehabilitate his or herself.
Criminology and penology in this country reached its apex in 1790, when the Quakers established the first jail in America to house felons. No longer is intensive religious instruction and harsh physical labor pressed upon prisoners. However, now prisons are just industrial complexes that warehouse men and women for a period of time. In the face of prison budgets and priorities centered on security, instead of educational and vocational programs, most prisoners return to society inadequately prepared and unable to do so well. They thus become, again, a threat to public safety, and consequently cost taxpayers more because they become incarcerated again. In Rhode Island, 54 percent of released prisoners return within three years.
Correctional educational studies done by the Rand Corporation suggest that prison education programs are cost effective. For every dollar invested in prison education, four to five dollars can be saved per head during someone’s first three years of post-release. Education and vocational programs are good for prison security; engaging incarcerated individuals in positive actions replaces their idle time with constructive work. Further, academic and vocational achievements can be the driving force that promotes self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth.
The reach of educational attainment and vocational skills extend far beyond the individual, also affecting the lives of an incarcerated person’s family. In Rhode Island, 56% of incarcerated men, and 58% of incarcerated women are parents. When a parent is educated, it is likely to increase the education level of their children.
Surely no good deed could ever go unpunished—there currently exists outside forces who claim that educating criminals only makes them more dangerous to society. This sentiment resurrects the question of what society we wish to live in. If we can create and harbor an immunity to compassion for prisoners, regardless of the circumstances, what kind of community are we? Not only is this ineffective, it costs society more, in many ways, in the long run.