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Prison: civilization's 'dark flower'

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Gregory Bull/AP

(Read caption) A prison guard oversees inmates on their way to dinner at Calipatria (Calif.) State Prison.

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Prisons have been around since the dawn of civilization. For all that time, prisons have been a dilemma. 

We lock up murderers, thugs, and thieves both to punish them and to keep them away from law-abiding citizens. Yet prisons are notorious hotbeds of crime, from which first-time offenders too often emerge as hardened criminals. We spend millions persuading prisoners to go straight, giving them occupational training, and coaching them on reentry into civilized society. Yet the mere mention of a criminal record can disqualify a felon from employment, wilt a budding friendship, and relegate an ex-convict to a shadow life of halfway houses, dependence on charity, and possible recidivism.

Well, we tell ourselves, they had it coming; their victims are the ones who really suffered. Lock ’em up and throw away the key. But we also believe in redemption and second chances, at least for ourselves and those we know and love. If anyone close to us spends time behind bars, we experience – and are appalled by – the inhumanity of the penal system, the institution that Nathaniel Hawthorne called the “black flower of civilized society.” 

And here’s a practical fact: While there’s no denying that criminal behavior leads to dire consequences, there’s also no denying that the eventual outcome of prison for the vast majority of inmates will be their release back into society. Less than 3 percent of the 1.6 million people in US prisons are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. The rest will at some point be living in our neighborhoods.

More than ever, that point is now. As Sean Miller reports a Monitor Weekly cover story, record numbers of inmates are leaving prison because of tightening budgets for correctional programs, new thinking about how to handle nonviolent offenders, and the completion of sentences by a bulge of people convicted during the higher-crime, tougher-sentencing era of the 1970s and ’80s.

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