Rethink Revenge: Why Our Prison System Doesn’t Work

Eddie Ray Routh was convicted Tuesday for the 2013 killing of Chris Kyle — author of the autobiography “American Sniper” — and his friend Chad Littlefield at a gun range in Texas; the jury deliberated for just two hours before reaching a guilty verdict.

Wow, a news story that involves an American hero who famously suffered from PTSD and the mentally ill veteran that killed him, you say? This maelstrom of misfortune sounds like the perfect springboard to launch into the topic of the decade: mental health and the American prison system.

Certainly when a man kills an American hero, the jury’s decision should be a no-brainer; it shouldn’t take any longer than two hours to deliberate on his fate, right?

But things get a bit murkier when you consider the aforementioned fact that Routh was suffering from the same disease that plagued our war hero. A veteran of the Iraq war himself, Routh was known to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, medicine used to treat schizophrenia was found in his home. And even his victim Kyle acknowledged Routh’s compromised mental state, sending a text the day of his death that read, “this dude [Routh] is straight up nuts.”

Given this, we might expect a longer deliberation from the jury; we might expect an insanity defense to stick.

But — as an article by Abby Phillip published in the Washington Post explains — it’s very hard to demonstrate insanity.

“To surmount the odds, an attorney must demonstrate not mental illness but legal insanity. … You can be insane, but if you knew at the time of the crime what you were doing was wrong, you’re cooked,” Phillip said.

Having recognized that killing Kyle was wrong on the night of his arrest when an officer asked, Routh was going to prison one way or another.

Routh is almost certainly — if not legally, then psychologically — insane, and, considering where he’s going, he won’t be alone. That same Washington Post article explains that “rates of mental illness in prisons are four to six times higher than in the general population,” and “some 14 percent of men and 31 percent of women in America’s prisons have serious mental problems.”

Remember the various controversies that swept the nation throughout the 20th century about the treatment of mentally ill in mental institutions? It is like the institution decided the best way to fix that is to dump them all into the already dysfunctional prison system. Surprise surprise, it isn’t going so well.

When a person’s mental ailments are so devastating they pose a threat to those around them, we understand that a person must be removed from society. But they need not be punished, and that’s exactly what our current criminal justice system does.

An op-ed by Martin Garbus — a litigator and constitutional lawyer — published on details the horrific living conditions that exist in America’s jails and prisons. Our cells are overcrowded; inmates are subject to health problems, including bacterial infections and STDs; their cells can be freezing or sweltering; and they’re sometimes subject to solitary confinement — a punishment known to have profound mental affects on inmates.

An article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, “The Caging of America,” corroborates the claims that punishment is still the de facto methodology of our prison systems, despite claims by the states and federal government to the contrary, saying that every day at least 50,000 men wake in solitary confinement and that every year 70,000 prisoners are raped.

Even if, for the most part, corporal punishment and its ilk have disappeared from prison systems, the fact remains that this system is an institution that punishes — if not in intent than in reality. Is not allowing 70,000 prison rapes to happen because of the structure of prisons a punishment in itself?

The question is why punish the mentally ill, correct? It makes absolutely no sense to punish someone who is not entirely in control of their own actions, who does not understand what they are being punished for, who is a victim to a disease that fundamentally alters their brain chemistry. You know what? To hell with it, it makes no sense to punish any criminals, mentally ill or not.

You know why? Because it simply does not work.

The same New Yorker piece states that the incarceration rate has tripled since the 1980s and a piece by James Gilligan in The New York Times, “Punishment Fails. Rehabilitation Works,” says that two-thirds of prisoners reoffend within three years of release — an atrocious recidivism rate in a first-world country.

We can hear the counters to our plea: Why should we spend tax dollars on protecting those who break the rules of society? Why protect those who kill, rape and steal?

First and foremost, punishment should not be the role of the government. A traditional Western government is meant to maintain the rights of the people while allotting them responsibilities — such as following laws. When individuals break this contract, they must either be controlled or rehabilitated. For the government to step into the role of punisher and executioner is for it to step beyond its boundaries — a dangerous reality that we have been allowing for far too many years.

If ambiguous, and potentially sophomoric, political philosophy arguments are not your cup of tea then consider this: our system — in which prisoner comfort and rehabilitation is often the least of our concerns — is not cost effective. In the New York Times piece mentioned above, Gilligan points to a San Francisco jail that reduced the level of violence significantly with an intensive re-educational program using violent male offenders. The result was a reduction in recidivism by 83 percent, saving the state $30,000 a year per person.

The illogical treatment of the mentally ill in the justice system is a symptom of a much larger problem. Certainly there are prisons, groups and individuals that care deeply about helping prisoners by offering serious and productive rehabilitation programs to prisoners, but even they are fighting the ethos of our corrections system.

And what of the prisoners, like Routh, who are too dangerous to even be released? Or even the violent, seemingly evil, prisoners who delight in their misdeeds? Again, though we understand the desire of victims and their family for punishment, it is not the role of their government to relish in punishing these individuals.

In the end, we wholeheartedly agree with Gilligan’s conclusion, “It would be beneficial to every man, woman and child in America, and harmful to no one, if we were to demolish every prison in this country and replace them with locked, safe and secure home-like residential communities.”