If you were to poll a random sampling of people about the purpose of prison, you’d probably get a wide range of responses, but one common answer you might hear is “rehabilitation.” In theory, someone serving a prison sentence is “paying their debt to society” and, if released, will get the opportunity to start over again on a law-abiding path. At the very least, it certainly sounds nice.
In reality, though, prison does little to rehabilitate offenders and actually makes it incredibly hard for released inmates to get a fresh start due to a number of structural barriers. These structural barriers don’t just affect former inmates, either; studies and interviews show that experiencing violent prison culture leads to higher rates of domestic violence against wives and partners.
Susan Sered, a professor of sociology at Suffolk University in Boston, recently wrote an article for Salonlooking at ways in which the prison system actually makes domestic violence worse. She cited a number of factors, including the violent culture of prisons, former inmates’ frustration over limited options upon their release, and domestic violence victims’ unwillingness to report abusers for fear that their partner will be sent back to prison (or out of fear that they themselves will suffer unintended negative consequences for reporting domestic violence).
Prison Culture Perpetuates Violence
Prison is certainly not a deterrent for violent behavior, as inmates often feel that they have to present an aggressive front in order to avoid becoming victims themselves. As the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast reports, “The showing of feelings may be viewed as a sign of weakness which other inmates may exploit to their advantage.” Engaging in violent behavior and repressing emotions may become defense mechanisms.
Many inmates have a hard time adjusting to life outside of prison upon their release and may carry prison’s culture of violence with them. They may have trouble expressing their emotions and may lash out at the people in their lives, especially their partners and/or children. In fact, one large-scale study from Oregon found that 1 in 4 male former inmates engaged in acts of domestic violence against their female partners within the first several years of their release.
Structural Barriers May Leave Former Inmates Reliant on Partners
When offenders are released from prison, they face a number of obstacles to re-entering society—they must cope with the stigma of being a former felon, they may find it incredibly difficult to find a job in the legal economy due to their criminal record, they will be unable to access public or subsidized housing, and their time in an institutionalized setting may leave them unprepared to adjust to day-to-day life outside of prison. Additionally, they may struggle to pay rent, restitution that is part of their sentence, and child support, if they have children.
As a result, many male former inmates end up relying on wives and girlfriends for housing, money, and general support. This places stress on both parties, which often boils over into anger and acts of violence on the part of the former inmate. Exerting dominance through violence may be the ex-prisoner’s misguided outlet for expressing masculinity and control when he is feeling powerless in other areas of his life.
Domestic Violence Victims Face Unintended Consequences of Reporting Abuse
Domestic violence between ex-prisoners and their female partners often, sadly, goes unreported due to the victim’s fears about what will happen if she speaks up. Because domestic violence is a crime, the abuser could go back to prison if the victim reports them. And the victim could also experience serious, unintended consequences—for example, women in public or subsidized housing risk being evicted and losing government benefits, such as food stamps and welfare, if it comes to light that a former prisoner was staying with them. In some cases, women may even lose custody of their children for harboring a former inmate, even if the ex-prisoner is the children’s father.
With all these factors in play, it’s no surprise that prison sentences perpetuate domestic violence, especially in lower-income households – and lower-income individuals are the people who are disproportionately sent to prison! Because of this, it’s important for courts to consider alternatives to prison whenever possible. For example, mandatory anger management classes or counseling sessions and probation might be a better sentence than prison for some people charged with domestic violence. Our justice system needs to focus on solutions that will lead to higher rates of rehabilitation instead of recidivism and increased physical harm to the partners of former offenders.
About the Author:
Andrew M. Weisberg is a former felony prosecutor who now serves as a defense attorney in the greater Chicago area. He has extensive experience in handling all types of criminal cases, from sex offenses and violent crimes to theft-related crimes and traffic violations.