How do the communities prisoners come back to compare to the prison they just left?
Kevin Wright, assistant professor in criminal justice at Arizona State University, examines this pivotal factor in reforming our criminal justice system.
Kevin A. Wright is an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. Professor Wright earned his Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from Washington State University in 2010. His research interests include criminological theory and correctional policy, with particular emphasis placed on the intersection between the two. Currently, he is focusing on the importance of ecological context for offender rehabilitation and reintegration, and his work has been published inCriminology, Criminology and Public Policy, and Justice Quarterly.
Prisons and Poor Communities
Reforming our criminal justice system includes reforming our prisons. There’s overcrowding, unmet mental health needs, and violence is all too common. But this probably isn’t the first time that people in prison have lived in these conditions.
My interactions with people in prison have taught me something that may be surprising: the communities that they came from are often just as bad.
Like prison, disadvantaged communities are missing positive role models, quality education, and gainful employment. And, just like prison, these communities have high rates of violence, victimization, and mental illness. Correctional officer brutality replaces police officer brutality, and neither environment is likely to have high quality treatment programs.
Many of the conditions that lead to crime in the first place are reproduced and amplified in prison. This is a problem. Over 90% of incarcerated individuals are released. This amounts to over 600,000 offenders each year returning to communities. Criminologists find that they are often worse off than when they left.
The revolving door of prison keeps turning in part because these communities never change. When your community already looks and feels like a prison, time spent in a real prison does little to change your future outlook.
So while improving prison conditions is a nice start, it’s important to also improve the conditions in poor communities. An investment in the educational and employment opportunities in these areas now can save money and victims later.
Some have called the criminal justice system “the social service institution of last resort.” We don’t have to wait until someone is locked up to talk about poor living conditions. If we can improve our worst communities, and our prisons, then we may have fewer people who spend time behind prison walls.