The United States has become a superpower of incarceration. As an NAACP advertisement points out, we are 5 percent of the world's population, and we house 25 percent of the world's prisoners.
One of the most difficult problems the U.S. faces today is what to do with that 25 percent. What warrants imprisonment? For how long" How should we reintegrate released men and women?
In modern times, the great philosophical debate has been whether the mission is to reform or to punish, and possibly no society has cycled quite so widely between the two extremes as America has.
More than 200 years ago, jail was little more than a means of segregating malefactors from the rest of the U.S. population. Perpetrators who weren't killed outright were treated harshly, confined in dungeons or tawdry, violent, and often disease-ridden jails.
A grand vision of prison reform was instituted when Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary opened its doors in 1829. The concept was pure of heart: Prison would be a place of penitence where inmates reflected on their sins. In short, a penitentiary rather than a house of punishment.
The penitentiary's architecture included church-like features: barrel-vaulted corridors, pointed-arch windows, and skylights to let in the light of heaven. Each cell was a self-contained unit, and the isolation was total. Prisoners received no visits from friends or family, and reading material was restricted to the Bible. The system, its builders believed, would produce honest men, and supporters argued they were taking a humane and society-improving approach.
In practice, it was a living hell.
When Charles Dickens came to see the extraordinary institution in 1841, he met Charles Langenheimer, a German immigrant incarcerated for theft. Dickens expected to be uplifted by the experience. Instead, as he recounted in "American Notes," he was horrified.
"I never saw such a picture of forlorn affliction and distress of mind. My heart bled for him; and when the tears ran down his cheeks, and he took one of the visitors aside, to ask. . . whether there was no hope of his dismal sentence being commuted, the spectacle was really too painful to witness. I never saw or heard of any kind of misery that impressed me more than the wretchedness of this man."
Norman Johnston, author of "Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions," writes: "The effects of solitary were brutal. To be cut off from human contact like that is just horrific."
However, Johnston, who has been visiting prisons all over the world since the 1950s, points out that prisons haven't gotten much better: "The new, factory-style supermax prisons are built with efficiency, not rehabilitation or prisoner sanity, as a prime objective."
Will we ever get prisons right? Throughout the legal and criminal justice world, which includes the professionals who have seen the system continue to fail, there is growing receptivity to the idea of restorative justice -- the idea that the system has to be predicated on healing and reparation rather than punishment. The notion hearkens back to the ideals of Eastern State's founders, but without the torture of solitary confinement.
One group working toward restorative justice is the Council for Unity, which organizes incarcerated former gang members and gets them together to talk. It's all voluntary. They sit in a circle and speak freely about their sins and their regrets in a program modeled on AA.
"We bring in FBI and Department of Corrections and community stakeholders," says executive director Bob DeSena, "and they are stunned by the intelligence and depth and squandered assets of young men who should not be in prison."
He argues that the first step in reform is not seeing prisons in isolation but as part of a social system. "We need to recognize that from the moment someone enters prison he needs to be prepared for when he leaves prison. You can't neglect him for 20 years and have him walk out with $78 and a bus ticket and expect him to function in society."
Granted, DeSena's organization has made but a tiny inroad into the gigantic problem of incarceration today. As he points out, what's needed is a comprehensive reform effort at the government level.
"There have to be programs through unions or through tax breaks to corporations for apprenticeships and job placements for offenders. They need halfway houses and wraparound services that include job placement, career readiness, housing, substance abuse services, all the things an offender needs in a communal setting in place before you even let him go. If that happens, he'll have a place to go."
Preventing the recidivism DeSena talks about is one possible solution to America's incarceration problem. As a cautionary tale, consider the outcome of Dickens' German prisoner, Charles Langenheimer.
Released from Eastern State a few years after his encounter with the famous writer, the incorrigible thief would be arrested and jailed at least a dozen more times, serving eight more sentences at Eastern State alone. Finally, in 1884, desperate, frail, and unable to function on the outside, Langenheimer returned to Eastern State and asked if he could be let back in. He said he wished to die in the one place he had successfully adapted to.
Prison officials granted his request.
Todd Pitock, is a regular contributor to The Saturday Evening Post.