By: Kate Luce
The Political Science Club hosted a discussion about what the criminal justice system should serve. Dr. Stacie Merken, assistant professor in criminal justice, led the role of adding to the conversation by speaking on historical, academic and local information about the prison system.
One of the first questions posed to the group was how the system should serve, whether this being with deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, rehabilitation or restitution. The group answered the question with many different responses. However, responses were the combination of a couple of options. Not one answer was agreed upon.
This question was also pushed toward the local area. Because of COVID-19, Criminal Rule 26 is enacted. According to Indiana’s Supreme Court in 2017, the rule involves an evidence-based risk investment, and it pushes non-violent, small offenders out of the system. With COVID-19, bonds are set to zero and are able to leave.
An issue that was brought up with this rule is that there has been an increase in re-offenders because of the lack of deterrence. People are more likely to commit another crime or the same crime because there is not a bond keeping them in jail.
After this discussion, the conversation shifted to what are acceptable conditions for the prison system. Merken spoke on how harsher conditions do not contribute to the reincarnation of people.
Merken also said that some of the top reasons why prison riots happen are poor conditions and overcrowding. She said most prisons within the United States are overcrowded, which increases bad behavior.
There is a lack of nutrition with meals, and personal hygiene products are often limited. These issues also tie into mental health issues. Now, with COVID-19 being an issue in the system. Prisoners are having an increase in isolation and having rehabilitation programs cut.
Prisoners receive basic health care. As Merken states, if a prisoner has a bad tooth, it will be pulled rather than treated. According to Merken, incarcerated people’s life expectancy decreases. Because of poor nutrition and other factors, high blood pressure is very common,
One question that was posed was what prisons can do/are doing because of COVID-19. Merken said that releasing non-violent offenders can be vital to stop the rapid spread of the disease. However, Merken does not think that prisons will do this. Rather, in-person visitation has been put on hold.
Prison employees are able to come and go, making them some of the biggest spreaders of COVID-19. Every day, the employees take self-tests, which helps stop some of the spread. However, because COVID-19 tests are limited for even non-incarcerated people, many times prisons have limited tests. Often if a group of prisoners gets infected with COVID-19, staff will say that everyone has it.
Within the discussion of COVID-19, prison labor was spoken on, as some prisoners are creating PPE. Some of the questions posed were, should labor be mandatory? Should this be paid or unpaid? Should they be able to have a choice in work? Should corporations have the ability to have sponsorship in prison labor?
Merken spoke on the facts of prison labor. Currently, prisoners make anywhere between $0.15 to $1.38. Nonviolent offenders are only able to participate in employment. Prisoners typically make license plates, driver licenses or furniture for public schools.
The group spoke on if corporations should be able to provide for this prison if they have sponsorship in a certain prison. Discussions on if a minimum wage should be established or shouldn’t be established were brought to the attention of the group.
One member brought up that people re-enter prison because of a lack of house and a lack of employment. However, another member brought up if this help would be a reward for committing a crime.
Education in prison was the conclusion of this discussion. Pros include there is a reduction of return to prison and a more educated society. Cons include this would be a reward for committing a crime and prisoners must pay for this opportunity.
According to Merken, taxpayers do not pay for education in the prison system, ever since the inclusion of the Pell Grant of 1994. The average level of education for prisoners is at a 7th-grade level. GED teachers are volunteers and do not get paid.
Discussion on issues on the culture of education, funding on education in low-income areas and how legislation works are the root of the problem.
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