The Prison System

Today there is a great opportunity being lost in regards to the correctional system. The prison system in the United states is greatly broken, and it is harming many people – in 2014 the number of incarcerated people was 2.4 million.

Our prison system has the opportunity to have an incredibly positive effect on many people in the United States but unfortunately that opportunity is not being taken advantage of.

The development of a person is highly related to the environment that surrounds a person on a daily basis and the environment that they grew up in. People’s ideologies, worldviews, and ways of approaching life are profoundly affected by those around them. Why does this have anything to do with the prison system? Don’t worry – that will come into play later.


There is a common saying that you become the average of the five people that you spend the most time around. Whether or not that is entirely true that statement has profound implications.It states that the people you surround yourself with help to form who you are if you are open to their ways of interacting with the world.

In order for people to be fully aided by the institutions that they are constituents of, those institutions must operate with a sense of empathy. They must have empathy to realize that people are human beings with value, lives of their own, and families.

They should see that these people come from every background and they all view and interact with the world differently. Prisons should understand that a lot of the people going into prison come from an environment of fear, where they may feel as if the only way to survive is by committing crime.

The opportunity that prison systems have that I have been alluding to is the fact that they have the ability to help their inmates live better lives and help them to also improve the lives of those around them (by no means am saying that all people in prison are “bad people”).

If the prison system was set up in such a way that first – the only people going to jail were actual hardcore criminals rather than a combination of hardcore criminals and people who are discriminated against for committing small crimes that truly don’t harm many people; and second – it was built as a “rehabilitation center” to help people turn their lives around it would have an incredible impact.

As I said before, people are largely influenced by the people that they spend time with and their environment, and if the people who have been formed by an environment of fear go to prison and return to that same environment with improved lives – they can help the other people in that environment to rise up as well and get out of a bad life situation.

Unfortunately the “correctional system” is not exactly correctional as is explained in a quote by

An estimated two-thirds (68 percent) of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years from prison, and three- quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) . More than a third (37 percent) of prisoners who were arrested within five years of release were arrested within the first six months after release, with more than half (57 percent) arrested by the end of the first year. (Percent of Released Prisoners Returning to Incarceration)

If the correctional system was truly that – correctional, than the statistics stated earlier would be much lower. It is obvious that the current way of doing things simply is not working well, and in an efficient system, when something does not work the right way it should be changed so that it does. In order for change to happen people need to be open to new ideas.

Our society should establish a prison system that drastically changes the environment of the prisons that people must live in. Rather than being fearful places where people live in almost inhuman conditions they could be peaceful places where people can heal themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually.


Many people are familiar with a common example of an experiment that placed a rat in a cage – it had a spout that dripped only water, and another that produced cocaine for the rat. The cage was empty and the rat was by itself, completely deprived of sensory experience in a very artificial environment, not representing its natural environment at all.

The rat continually pumped the cocaine spout, until it eventually died.

There was one person named Bruce Alexander, who after the tests of the rats in bleak cages decided to make something called rat park. Rat park was a wonderful place for rats, multiple rats lived in the same area, as opposed to one rat in a single cage in the prior experiment.

It was a much healthier and better environment for the rats with more things to do and experience. In rat park, there was also spouts set up for just  water and  water with drugs, like the prior experiment.

The rats in rat park did not care about the water laced with drugs and Bruce Alexander even set the rats up where they lived in the isolated cage environment and took the drugs for 57 days, after that he moved the rats to rat park.

The rats that had originally lived in the isolated cage taking the water laced with drugs and had been moved to rat park eventually grew to not care about the drugs that they had access to within rat park.

Addiction to drugs could be potentially seen as an attempt by the user to fulfill a missing need

– whether that be community, nature, exercise, happiness, motivation, fulfillment, etc..

It is easy to see that the current prison environment resembles the cells of the rats in the first experiment: devoid of sensory variation, nature, and sometimes community.

Placing someone in solitary confinement because they were arrested for drug use is incredibly counter intuitive with awareness of the rat park experiment, that would simply be trying to fix an issue using the exact environment that can generate said issue.


The life of the modern person living in a city can also resemble that of the rat in the original experiment.

Think of the average person who lives in an apartment and works in a cubicle, for explanation purposes – that person’s name is Joe. Joe wakes up in the morning in his room (cage) that is in his apartment (slightly bigger cage) . He goes down the elevator (another cage) to get to his car (also a cage) where he drives to his office building (a very large cage) and sits in his cubicle (cage).

There he spends the day typing and shuffling numbers, completely disconnected from the natural environment and the people around him. Joe leaves his work cage to drive home in his car cage so he can sit in his apartment cage. He feels unsettled and bored so he turns on the TV and watches until gets tired and returns to his room cage to fall asleep.

Joe wakes up the next morning and repeats the same process. Eventually, every piece of spare time Joe has he uses to watch TV- he is now addicted to television.

It can be observed in hunter gatherer societies (the groups of humans closest to their natural state) that community is something that is integral to a full experience of life. Community is something that is necessary for people as a whole to be well off, we live in a society that divides people from each other.

The division can be ideological, or physical, there are many people who live by themselves or do not have close connections with a group or tribe of people.  For anyone who lives that kind of life or is in a situation that does not fulfill basic needs, it is easy for them to develop addictions- for some people it can be TV, for others it can be drugs.

If someone is living a life that resembles the isolated rat in the cage- taking that person and putting them in a different cage will potentially perpetuate rather than ameliorate their addiction.  

What if we could make prisons so that they look like rat park instead? Provide an environment that helps people to heal instead of being further wounded.

If our society provided something like that, our prison system would be much better off. It would also cost more to house each inmate – giving prisons an anti-incentive, so they no longer jail people for small crimes for the sake of filling quotas.

As this is an essay on a social justice issue – all people should be respected and treated with dignity. Inmates are no exception – they deserve to be treated well.

Throughout my academic career I have always placed importance on academic honesty, but the most compelled I have ever felt to be honest with my work was when a teacher placed the responsibility in the hands of the student.

She would go student to student and simply ask if they did their homework- basing trustworthiness off an honor code. In that situation I felt respected as a student and paid that respect back by making sure I was honest every time.

Inmates should be treated in a way where they are looked upon as if they have integrity, rather than as untrustworthy people who should be guarded at all times. People will act according to how you treat them, if you treat someone like a gentleman or gentlewoman they will act accordingly. Likewise, if you treat someone as if they do not matter then they will not respect you, or the rules that you wish for them to follow. If our society changed prisons from a cage to a place of reform, we would be better off as a whole.

Brendon Caliva


Works Cited:



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