Throw Away the Keys

One of the biggest travesties in our society today is private prisons and the “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality.

Prison privatization is a booming for profit business, but at what cost? In my state of Arizona, private prison is a booming business. Why? Lobbyists and government officials who own stock in said corporate prisons.

Many of the higher ranking prison officials who have retired from the state prison find their way into the privatization sector hired as administrators. We would call that “double dipping.”  It’s not illegal nor is it immoral. Somehow, it just doesn’t seem right in the eyes of justice.

What I find morally wrong with the privatization of prison is the warehousing of human souls. Our state pays the private prison industry per bed, whether it is occupied or not. If a private prison has 1500 beds and only 750 are filled the state still pays for 1500.

Private prisons do not provide the programming opportunities that the state facilities do and inmate “jobs” are not as readily available. This means the inmate population has more free time, unstructured time. More time to get into trouble. It also means the inmate who is to be released has no training or coping skills to prevent recidivism. This means the entrance to prison has become a revolving door and if it is a private for profit prison and what does the warehousing of a human soul mean except more money from the tax paying citizens of the state.

When our nation began using penitentiaries to incarcerate offenders, it was very different than today’s standards and methods. Just breakdown the word penitentiary or reformatory and seek its true meaning:

Penitentiary = penitent
pen·i·tent [pen-i-tuh nt]

adjective: feeling or expressing sorrow for sin or wrongdoing and disposed to atonement and admendment; repentant; contrite.

noun: a penitent person. In the Roman Catholic Church a person who confesses sin and submits to a penance.

Related forms
pen·i·tent·ly, adverb
non·pen·i·tent, adjective, noun
un·pen·i·tent, adjective
un·pen·i·tent·ly, adverb

remorseful, rueful, sorrowful.
penitent (ˈpɛnɪtənt)

— adj – feeling regret for one’s sins; repentant
— n – a person who is penitent

Christianity: a person who repents his sins and seeks forgiveness for them; RC Church a person who confesses his sins to a priest and submits to a penance imposed by him.

Now let’s look at reformation:

Reformatory = reform
re·form   [ri-fawrm

noun: the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt,unsatisfactory, etc.: social reform; spelling reform. The amendment of conduct, belief, etc.

verb (used with object): to change to a better state, form, etc.; improve by alteration,substitution, abolition, etc.; to cause (a person) to abandon wrong or evil ways of life or conduct; to put an end to (abuses, disorders, etc.).

Chemistry – to subject to the process of reforming, as in refining petroleum or gold or silver.

verb (used without object): to abandon evil conduct or error: The drunkard promised to reform.

Related forms
re·form·a·ble, adjective
re·form·a·bil·i·ty, re·form·a·ble·ness, noun
re·form·a·tive, adjective
re·form·a·tive·ly, adverb
re·form·a·tive·ness, noun

Synonyms: correction, reformation, betterment, amelioration, better, rectify, correct, amend, emend, ameliorate, repair, restore.

(Definitions provided by

Do we see any true reform happening within the confines of current prison sentencing? Do we see any actual amends to the victims of crime other than the assessments the courts impose?

In the Arizona state facilities inmates were required to raise funds to go towards victim rights programs. How was this done? Funds were raised by selling the inmates items they normally could not get in prison, i.e. a “pan pizza” that cost $5 would be doubled in price and the inmate would pay $10 to get a pizza or maybe a container of ice cream that cost $2.50 would sell for $5.00. This is well and good if the inmate has  1) funds to purchase the item and  2) likes the item being provided.

It is like getting “the goat” from here to there: the goat is attached to a cart. A carrot is attached to a pole. The carrot is dangled just out of reach above the goat’s head to get it to move towards the carrot thus propelling the cart as a means of travel. This depended upon two things: you had something to entice the goat and that the goat was attracted to the item.

Please understand, I am not comparing inmates to goats or vice versa, just the similarity between the two actions. How do I know these things? Nineteen years of working for the Department of Corrections provides me with a bit of knowledge and expertise.

Does an administratively “required” action such as this actually cause the inmate to think about the victim they left in the wake of their crime? I don’t think so. It gives the inmate an opportunity born out of selfishness to have or receive an item they normally do not have a chance to receive.

I do know of a number of wonderful things that were provided due to funding collected in this manner such as playground equipment for a park – all installed by inmate labor and furnishings for an after school program for a Boys and Girls Club. But again, how did this action benefit the victims of the inmates’ crime?

Back “in the day” when they were penitentiaries – the opening to the institution the inmate would enter was low, so low they had to crawl in on their knees. It was a symbolic gesture to help the inmate realize the only way to redemption was through acts of penitence. It was also in these penitentiaries that inmates were introduced to education. They were taught to read – to read the Bible. One could say it was a real “Come to Jesus” time in their lives.

Victor Hugo said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”

Society and criminal justice have changed and not necessarily for the better. Private prison corporations are, after all, set up to run at a profit. This begs the question – where is the justice? Why do we allow inmates to be incarcerated for non-violent offences? Why is there such overcrowding? How are other countries coping?

*Take a look here for a look at what’s happening in Europe. And what happens if you have a jail with no one to put in it? Look what Sweden is doing here [From Shannon at Finding Grace Within.]

We need reform. Reformation of the prison system as we know it and reformation and rehabilitation of the inmates who will be returned to society.

~The Prison Librarian


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