How the Punitive Nature of Current US Society is Destroying Small Town America

As I sat in my local fiscal court and I listened to the city officials present discuss the city’s budget, I was bored to death. I am not well versed in the world of accounting or budgeting or math for that matter. However, once the local jail costs were brought up, my interest was immediately peaked. The semester prior I had taken a class in my graduate program that focused on punishment and society and how the punitive actions of the current neoliberal state is affecting every facet of American life. One of the councilmen took pointed interest in the fact that the jail was already in surplus spending and it was only March. He directly addressed the county jailer (who shouldn’t have the job to begin with because he’s unqualified…to put it nicely). He was asking him why we were already $200,000 in the surplus this early in the year and the jailer didn’t have any significant answers. It was at this point that the statement was made by a city councilman that inspired me to write this entry: “This jail is gonna break us.”

I have lived in the great state of Kentucky since the day I was born. I love my roots and am proud to tell people that I hail from the Bluegrass State. We’ve got killer sports programs (Go Cats!), famous bourbon, fast horses, and beautiful scenery. However, for as much as I love my home state, there is a lot that we struggle with. We have staggering poverty, obesity, illiteracy, and unemployment rates just to name a few. State funding for the public education system is at an all-time low and our schools are not producing the high caliber students that they should be. Add all of these problems to the high rate of illegal drug abuse in Kentucky and it’s clear that there is a problem. Unfortunately, this problem usually manifests itself in massive incarceration rates. The majority of people incarcerated in KY are because of drug offenses, much like the rest of the United States. Ridiculous mandatory minimum sentences are overcrowding our jails and prisons. The jail in my county is equipped to house 150 inmates; its current occupancy is pushing 300. Here are some statistics to consider:

  • The cost of incarcerating an inmate in KY is close to $19,000 per inmate
  • There are around 21,000 men and women incarcerated in Kentucky alone
  • The state spends about $450 million annually on the corrections system
  • Over 60% of those released from prison return to prison sometime within their life

The problems with mass incarceration are not only economic problems, but social ones as well. When 60% of the released incarcerated population is expected to return to lockdown at some point in their lives that is representative of a huge portion of American society. Once released back into society, ex-offenders are often faced with roadblocks that detour them straight back to incarceration. Some of these roadblocks include inability to be hired due to their ex-offender status, no access to welfare or social assistance programs, limited beneficial familial and peer support, and a lack of self-confidence. Just because these individuals have been previously incarcerated does not mean that they are any “less than” any other human being on this planet. A good majority of people who are currently incarcerated suffer from some sort of mental illness and by locking them up and throwing away the key, we are doing nothing to help rehabilitate them. Instead of helping them work through their problem(s), correctional facilities are releasing them back into society, shoving the responsibility of their care onto the shoulders of social service programs. However, it is not rare that these individuals end up falling through the cracks and not receiving the assistance they need or deserve. This unwillingness masked as inability is a huge hit to society and just another way that the punitive nature of our current social landscape is poisoning the purity and simplicity of small town America.

I firmly believe that, as a society and as individuals, we owe it to other people to help them whether they be homeless, disabled, or previously incarcerated. Call me a bleeding heart liberal, call me ignorant…(trust me, I’ve heard it all)…I don’t really care. I stay steadfast to the idea of servant leadership and giving back to those who need it most regardless of their past. And, ultimately, it is this kind of attitude that is needed to change the current American correctional system. Until we begin treating other people with the same respect that we’d expect for ourselves, nothing will change. Small town America will continue to be bled dry financially by unnecessarily strict incarceration policies and I fear to see what kind of society evolves from these practices.

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