Why Punishing People in Jail and Prison Isn’t Working

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Oct 24, 2023

When politicians sought to convince voters in Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana, to fund a new jail, they touted the fact that the facility would not have air conditioning. This strategy—used in a climate where incarcerated people suffer and even die each summer due to extreme heat—reflects a pervasive notion in the United States that jails and prisons shouldn’t be “country clubs” and that punishment is productive. It isn’t.

At least 95 percent of the people confined in state prisons will someday come home. They are our neighbors, friends, and co-workers. They are part of our communities and, like everyone, shape our shared future.

Research shows that incarceration can actually increase the likelihood of future crimes by traumatizing people before releasing them back into their communities. If the goal is public safety, punishing people behind bars isn’t the answer. Here’s why.

Many people are incarcerated due to poverty, homelessness, mental illness, or substance use

In many cases, people are sent to jails and prisons due to behavior rooted in poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and substance use—the outcomes of woefully insufficient investments in community health.

Research shows that young adults with access to mental health services are 15 percent less likely to be incarcerated than those without access. Yet people with mental health conditions are often forced to endure trauma and inadequate treatment behind bars when, instead, treatment in community settings could offer a better alternative. Researchers found that 61 percent of people in Los Angeles jails who are taking psychotropic medications or are housed in specialized mental health units could be safely diverted into existing alternatives to incarceration, like supportive housing and clinical support, rather than be locked up.

Incarceration also functions as a terrible solution to problems associated with drug use. In Kentucky, for example, the state has responded to its opioid crisis with punitive drug laws and increased incarceration, but has not made nearly enough investments in treatment, health care, employment, and housing. In 2020, Kentucky had the second-highest drug overdose mortality rate in the nation. And in 2019, Kentucky counties spent more than $402 million on local jails—funds that could, and should, have been redirected to proactive health care to help prevent negative outcomes associated with drug use.

Behaviors associated with homelessness—including sleeping in public spaces, asking for money, or public urination due to lack of public bathrooms—often result in unnecessary jail time as well. This is particularly true for teenagers experiencing homelessness, who are too often placed in jail-like settings on the unjust grounds that incarceration is necessary for their protection.

Human beings have a great capacity for growth, learning, and change

The drive to punish those convicted of crimes overlooks an essential fact: hundreds of thousands of people leave incarceration and return to their communities each year.

While behind bars, people are often subjected to dangerous conditions, resulting in trauma. In addition, incarceration severs a person’s ties with family and support networks and causes them to lose their jobs and housing. Upon release, people with a criminal conviction face barriers to housing and employment. All of these factors make it difficult for people to move forward. A 2021 analysis of 116 studies found that prison time does not prevent people from reoffending and, in fact, can increase the likelihood that they will.

Given the proper support and opportunities, all people are capable of growth and change. Incarcerated people who participate in postsecondary education programs, for example, have 48 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not. In Michigan, the recidivism rate for graduates of Vocational Village—a program that helps prepare incarcerated people for jobs in industries that demand skilled workers—is 11 percent within three years of release, far less than the statewide recidivism average of 27 percent.

Vera and MILPA’s Restoring Promise initiative operates within prison facilities to create housing units for young adults that are grounded in dignity, endeavoring to change correctional culture. Former cells are converted into spaces for learning, meditation, and conflict resolution. Retrained staff focus on restorative processes that help people repair harm and realize their potential through education, mentorship, accountability, and family engagement. Life while in prison resembles life on the outside as much as possible. Vera’s research found that, in one South Carolina prison, people with experience in these units were 73 percent less likely to be convicted of a violent infraction compared with those elsewhere in the facility.

“With 95 percent of incarcerated individuals returning to our communities at some point, providing programs that focus on rehabilitation and redemption not only improves prison safety, but also increases public safety as well,” said Dean Williams, former executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, a Restoring Promise partner. Colorado is one of several states that is working to erase the pervasive notion that harsh punishment helps society. “The big lie is that the worse we make prisons, the less prisoners we’ll have, because they won’t want to end up there. They think people won’t want to go there if we make them like a hellhole. The problem with that is, it doesn’t work.”

Survivors of crime themselves want prevention, healing, and repair—not punishment

Harsh treatment of incarcerated people goes against the wishes of survivors of crime. A majority of crime survivors prefer that the criminal legal system focus on rehabilitation over punishment, prioritize shorter sentences over long ones, and hold people accountable through alternatives to prison, like drug and mental health treatment, community service, and restorative justice.

Other countries that have reformed their criminal legal systems around humane principles have seen positive results. Norway’s prison system is focused on creating better neighbors by centering resocialization and reentry preparedness, rather than simply punishing people. People are provided humane living conditions, counseling, and education. This approach has borne remarkable results: only 20 percent of Norwegians released from prison are convicted of another crime, which is among the lowest recidivism rates in the world.

Options that aid rather than punish are often cheaper and more effective

New York City spends an outrageous $556,539 a year to jail people, forcing them to endure the hellish conditions on Rikers Island. By contrast, it costs $42,000 a year to house someone in a supportive housing program that provides individualized services for people who have behavioral health needs. In Los Angeles, it costs approximately $180 per day to provide community-based housing and clinical care for people with serious mental health needs, versus $445–650 to hold them in jail.

Offering educational opportunities also decreases the likelihood that someone will return to prison. The RAND Corporation estimates that every dollar invested in prison-based education saves taxpayers five dollars in reduced incarceration costs.

Inflicting suffering through punishment is simply not a path to public safety

Alternatives to harsh prisons and jails exist. Solutions that prioritize growth and health, and that are grounded in dignity and humanity, lead to better outcomes both for people within the criminal legal system and those outside of it.

States spend billions of dollars each year on corrections. Imagine if these resources were redirected to jobs, education, health care, and other solutions that help people lead safe and healthy lives.

We know how to transform the criminal legal system. It’s past time we do.