The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We need an audacious plan to innovate America’s prison system

A generation from now, we may look back at today’s prisons as anachronisms. (Nick Dentamaro/Jackson Citizen Patriot/AP)

America incarcerates more people than any other country in the world both on an absolute and per-capita basis. As of 2012, the U.S. had 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. By comparison, Japan had 63 prisoners per 100,000, Germany had 90, Britain had 153, Mexico had 208 and Brazil had 242. The United States, in fact, has nearly 25 percent of the world’s jailed prisoners. And even if you don’t give a hoot about the social justice angle of locking up so many people behind bars (many of them from disadvantaged or troubled backgrounds), think about the impact on economic growth as we write off a portion of our nation’s potential every year.

Quite simply, we need an audacious plan to innovate America’s prison system before it becomes a homegrown Gulag Archipelago.

That’s why it’s exciting that the Institute for the Future (IFTF) recently made “The End of Prisons” one of its big ideas for the next 10 years. As Tessa Finlev explains in a brief two-minute YouTube video for the 10YF2014 project, innovation for the U.S. prison system should be based on three fundamental pillars: restorative justice, thinking of prisoners as potential entrepreneurs and trauma-informed care. The vision for the future starts by reimagining prison as a closed economy (an Archipelago, if you will) closed off from a larger economy. This is followed by thinking of ways to establish “trade routes” that connect prisons with the outside world. In short, instead of closing off prisoners from the world, something has to be done to link them with society.

These ideas, in fact, have been espoused by the likes of none other than Warren Burger, former Supreme Court chief justice. More than 30 years ago, as a campaigner for prison reform, Burger famously suggested that we should view prisons as “factories with fences” rather than as “warehouses” stockpiled with lost dreams and lost futures. Within these “factories,” prisoners would learn a marketable skill that could be applied upon their future release. In one remarkable speech, Burger outlined a plan to limit “any form of discrimination against prison products,” to repeal any laws that limit prison industry production, and to convert prisons into “places of educations and into factories and shops for production.” And that was at a time (1981) when America’s prison population was 350,000 — not 6 million.

There’s a growing realization that prisons are a relic of the past and one of those anachronisms that society will regret in the future. In a provocative op-ed for the Post, Kwame Anthony Appiah argued that one day we’ll view the current prison system the same way we now view morally reprehensible institutions such as slavery. We’ll wonder why we are close to locking up nearly 1 percent of the population behind bars. In fact, there are more people behind bars in America — 6 million — than were in Stalin’s gulags. And we all know how that turned out.

Of course, innovating America’s prison system may sound good in theory, but what would all this look like in practice?

One example that people have talked about is the Scandinavian prison system. Turns out, the same nations that are touted as leaders when it comes to everything from high tech and education and design and innovation, are also some of the nations at the forefront of rehabilitating prison systems. Not only do nations such as Finland and Sweden and Norway incarcerate fewer prisoners, they also have a system in place to rehabilitate, educate and treat prisoners while they are in prison so that they can find gainful employment once they emerge.

So how practical is all this? Well, if your image of prison is of convicts shackled together in a chain gang, or lost souls under lock and key, serving time and becoming steadily more violent, you may want to do a rethink of your views.  Yes, there are a lot of very bad people in prison, but you could make a case that these are the very types of people that society should be helping. In addition, a growing number of prisoners are non-violent first-time offenders serving time due to the stepped up War on Drugs. These are exactly the type of people who could be saved first by innovating the American prison system and turning it into a rehabilitative system that promotes entrepreneurial skills, creativity and other skills for a 21st-century economy. 

As the Institute for the Future points out, prisoners could become future entrepreneurs. Or as Warren Burger notes, they could become skilled laborers as a result of working in “factories with fences.” Anything that would reduce the economic drag on society and take advantage of these individuals’ innovative and entrepreneurial potential, instead of just locking them up and letting them fester for decades. It’s not only current society that would benefit, but also future society long from now, which will wonder why it took us so long to realize that prisons today are a massive waste of human life.