To this day a many legal and penal scholars persist with the age-old rhetoric that America’s penal institution serves a rehabilitative purpose. Such propaganda not only ignores high recidivist rates, but, more importantly, evidences the deception upon which this institution was built. To give a brief history, I borrow from Professor Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?:
The penitentiary as an institution that simultaneously punished and rehabilitated its inhabitants was a new system of punishment that first made its appearance in the United States around the time of the American Revolution. This new system was based on the replacement of capital and corporal punishment by incarceration. Imprisonment itself was new neither to the United States nor to the world, but until the creation of this new institution called the penitentiary, it served as a prelude to punishment. People who were to be subject to some form of corporal punishment were detained in prison until the execution of the punishment. With the penitentiary, incarceration became the punishment itself. As is indicated in the designation “penitentiary,” imprisonment was regarded as rehabilitative and the penitentiary prison was devised to provide convicts with the conditions for reflecting on their crimes and, through penitence, for reshaping their habits and even their souls….
Thus born the concept and irony of prison rehabilitation. The irony being that which Professor Davis points where stating: “…the contention that prisoners would refashion themselves if only given the opportunity to reflect and labor in solitude and silence disregarded the impact of authoritarian [slave] regimes of living and work.” Here, she illustrates the point in context by citing the following excerpts from Adam Jay Hirsh’s The Rise of the Penitentiary: Prisons and Punishment in Early America:
Advocates of incarceration… hoped that the penitentiary would rehabilitate its inmates. Whereas philosophers perceived a ceaseless state of war between chattel slaves and their masters; criminologists hoped to negotiate a peace treaty of sorts within the prison walls. Yet herein lurked a paradox: if the penitentiary’s internal regime resembled that of the plantation so closely that the two were often loosely equated, how could the prison possibly function to rehabilitate criminals?
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One may perceive in the penitentiary many reflections of chattel slavery as it was practiced in the South. Both institutions subordinated their subjects to the will of others. Like Southern slaves, prison inmates followed a daily routine specified by their superiors. Both institutions reduced their subjects to dependence on others for the supply of basic human services such as food and shelter. Both isolated their subjects from the general population by confining them to a fixed habitat. And both frequently coerced their subjects to work, often for longer hours and for less compensation than free laborers.
That said, realistically, prison labor serves no other purpose than exploiting and degrading mankind. For, if indeed work is linked to a number of values such as achievement, success, progress-then it is without merit where made detestable by slavery. To this end, Raymond Aron notes: “Man is essentially a creature who works; if he works under inhumane conditions, he is dehumanized, because he ceases to perform the activity that, given the proper conditions, constitutes his humanity….” Thereby, work not only loses its human quality where made detestable by slavery, but also alienates the prisoner from learning the value of work ethic. This is so because to work in a prison setting is either punishment or a hardscrabble effort to obtain the “scraps” he’s been so convinced are necessary to maintain the illusionary comforts of prison life. So, instead of his efforts being viewed as an expression of maturity, of responsibility, they have been reduced to an instrument of punishment, a means to exploit which objectify him. Thus he comes away with nothing other than a sense of objectivity when defining self and others….