By McKayla Rosser/reporter
The U.S. puts more people in prison than any other country.
“Our society tends to be really fascinated with crime,” NE sociology instructor Cheryl North said Oct. 4 at a NE Campus panel discussion looking inside mass incarceration in the U.S.
“We have a paradigm of being proud of ourselves for being tough on crime,” she said.
Most other Western countries view incarceration itself as a punishment, North said. Prisons outside of the U.S. do not have additional tortures such as solitary confinement because prison is already punishment.
“A lot of times people with mental health issues are victimized in incarceration settings,” she said.
The skills and socialization incarcerated people learn in halfway homes go away after probation forces them into their old environment, North said. When residents of their old neighborhood see them dressed professionally, they get made fun of instead of finding support. It takes a community effort to rehabilitate people coming out of prison.
“There is a distinct difference between punishment and rehabilitation,” psychiatrist and advocate Dr. Parnell Ryan said. “There is a strong emphasis on punishment [here].”
Rather than individualizing the treatment of former prisoners, the U.S. clusters people into large groups that receive the same treatment, he said. The importance of mental health is ignored.
Evie Litwok said she remains emotionally damaged from her prison experience, and that this is the case for everyone who endured the trauma of prison.
“They don’t teach you what you really need to learn, which was never taught to you,” she said. “They don’t teach you how to get a job, how to make money.”
Recidivism, or repeat incarceration, is common for many who have been to prison, she said. Formerly incarcerated people can find themselves in prison again for probation violations as simple as using a cellphone they weren’t supposed to or for straying too far from the place of their initial arrest to visit family.
“The halfway house is worse than the prison,” Litwok said. “In my halfway house, I couldn’t have a phone or a computer. If I went to a library to apply for a job, I didn’t have a phone number they could call for an interview.”
Mental health also deteriorates from incarceration, she said noting that her own mental health began to decline from the time she was arrested.
“We are one community, and we are only as good as each of our own parts,” she said. “We need to repair this world. It’s divided.”
Society often believes all who are incarcerated deserve their punishment, advocate and NE government instructor Vanessa Steinkamp said.
“There are so many different pieces we try to homogenize to make that pie simple, but you can’t do that,” she said.
Despite the trauma and mental illness brought about through the U.S. prison system, change and personal transformation is possible no matter what the circumstances are, said formerly incarcerated but now successful business owner Keidran Brewster.
“While I was incarcerated, my mother died from a drug overdose,” he said. “I’m well aware of the effects that prison has on a person.”
Brewster used prison to educate himself, reading constantly and taking the steps to start his own business and support himself financially after his release.
“I know millions and millions of individuals sitting in prison who say they didn’t do this, they didn’t do that,” he said. “We need to keep in mind that they went there because they committed a crime. It’s not a hotel retreat.”
The most important thing, Brewster said, is to give prisoners a chance – teach them how to use the internet, hire them and guide them in the right direction so they can integrate back into society.
“No one comes out wanting to go right back,” he said. “Nobody wants to fail.”