Editor’s Note: Van Jones is the host of the “The Van Jones Show” and a CNN political commentator. He is the CEO of REFORM Alliance, an organization aiming to reduce the number of people serving unjust parole and probation sentences, and the co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice initiative of the Dream Corps. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
California’s San Quentin is one of the oldest prisons in the country. Located on a parcel of land jutting out into the San Francisco Bay, the mammoth 167-year-old facility has a lonely and intimidating look from the outside – and on the inside, it’s just as forlorn.
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None of this should be surprising; that’s how our criminal justice system has designed these facilities. American prisons are built on the idea of retributive justice, where the primary goal is to punish and seek vengeance. It’s a model that aims to incapacitate people who commit crimes and create powerful, painful incentives for them to act right in the future. The bottom line: You harm someone, and we harm you. You hurt others, and you will hurt.
This approach makes some intuitive sense. The problem is that adding harm to harm inevitably produces more harm. Too often, people come out of prison bitter – not better. While they’re locked away, their children suffer and may be led astray. And rather than derailing the cycle of violence and trauma, our system’s retributive approach may often support and even accelerate that destructive cycle: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68% of state prisoners are arrested again within three years.