Fundamental to society’s concept of “prison” is that it should generally be a place that people don’t want to go. The mere threat of going to prison is supposed to keep people from shooting, robbing, or plagiarizing you. (Or, God forbid, all three at once.)
For instance, I am afraid of going to prison. Part of it is because I am a sniveling ninny. Okay, all of it is. But so far, I have narrowly avoided killing anyone, and if I have, it tends to be softly and with love songs.
In fact, I’m not implying that prison is a pleasant experience for anyone. However, each year around 14,000 young men in Wisconsin decide that the threat of imprisonment isn’t an adequate deterrent to criminal behavior and end up behind bars. Maybe it’s because they just don’t think they’ll be caught. Maybe they’ve been to prison and are used to the lifestyle there. Maybe the last time they were in jail, they networked with other criminals that gave them a job running drugs when they were released.
Much like Corey Feldman’s acting, prison means different things to different people. Put yourself in the position of a good number of the men now sitting in the Wisconsin correctional system, and compare what they have now to the life they led outside of the joint.
Suppose I am a young male with problems. I have a crappy job that doesn’t pay me anything, and half of what I make goes to pay child support to my various children’s mothers. I’m six months behind in my rent, and I’m about to be thrown out on the street. I smoke weed every day, because it keeps me off drugs. My neighbor stole my television, so I can’t keep up with the latest technological advances in female de-humanism found in my favorite music videos. Even worse, I can’t watch “Facts of Life” reruns anymore.
Suddenly, the State of Wisconsin Correctional System comes to me with an opportunity. I get a free place to live, three meals a day, and I only have to work a few hours a week. My kids’ mothers aren’t harassing me at all hours of the night. Sure, they take all my prison job earnings for my child support, but I get cheap health care to take care of me. If I want, I can get help for my drinking problem – and it’s all paid for by the same rich people that were forcing me to drink so much in the first place.
Sure, there’s a significant downside to being locked away in prison. I like the ladies. I’ll probably end up married to a tattooed “child enthusiast,” but as long as I get to choose the wedding invitations, I’m good with that. Rumor has it that most of the people in the joint are criminals, so there’s a reasonable expectation that I could get my eyes stabbed out with a hair brush. But how, again, is that any different from the culture of violence in which I now live? (Plus, I can eat a lot of hard boiled eggs, which I assume will teach dudes not to mess with me.) There’s a small chance they could stick me with Steven Avery, which would be horribly offensive – I hear he doesn’t floss.
Thus, the decision isn’t as clear-cut as people think – prison could be a decent respite from the real world. The fact that I got to throw my landlord out a window to get myself in prison really is just icing on the cake. And when I get out, I’ll be treated like a hero returning from war – not like that nerdy cousin of mine who went to college. His inability to “keep it real” has caused more than a modicum of discord within my family.
On top of all this, I have all kinds of wimpy liberal groups arguing that prison is too hard. How great is that? Keep it up, fellas. In fact, if you can get me out of prison in time to launch my entirely plausible rap career, that would be great. Thanks.
Wisconsin actually has a history of making concessions to prisoners. We were the first state to abolish the death penalty, and to give prisoners time off for good behavior. In 1868, Wisconsin was even the first state to eliminate black and white striped prisoner uniforms. As a thank you for this kindness, criminals vowed to be more polite when they raped and murdered people for the next 140 years.
Unfortunately, our prisons are jammed with people willing to take the state up on their timeshare opportunity. Since 1987, the average daily prison population has grown by 277%. And if the state built more prisons, those will fill up, too. The state could convert Milwaukee’s Bradley Center into a penitentiary and it would be at capacity within a year – which is fitting, because watching the Bucks play often feels like incarceration.
Many people actually blame the growth in prison building with creating more prisoners – as if the prisons themselves increase crime. As the logic goes, more prisons means more prisoners, since prison actually comes to get you – it’s not something you earn. It’s as if the prisons are showing up at these poor, innocent young men’s doors disguised as insurance salesmen and snatching them from their homes.
There are myriad ways to reduce crime rates, including more aggressive policing on the front lines. On the back end, Wisconsin should examine ways to deter crime before it happens. We need to break the cycle of merely throwing criminals in prison – instead, the state should give lawbreakers a good reason not to choose the wrong path in the first place.