04
Apr 14

Unit Seven: Issue Brief Draft

This issue brief addresses the issue of overcrowding in the federal prison system.  I am still in the process of revising and constructing the infographics, as well as finalizing the notes.

The Cost of Overcrowding

Introduction

In light of the recent economic recession, the United States government has repeatedly made sweeping efforts to curb unnecessary spending and increase efficiency.  Numerous programs have been cut or restructured in attempts to reduce their cost to the American taxpayer.  Nevertheless, one exorbitantly expensive federal program has remained largely unaltered in recent years, despite the possibility of considerable savings.  This is the federal prison system, already plagued by overcrowding and burdened by increasing demands on its limited capacity.

-infographic: expenditures

The potential savings from the nearly $7 billion spent in federal prisons each year are too promising to ignore.  Reducing overcrowding would free existing government funds and thereby lighten the burden on American taxpayers.  To achieve this, policy makers have only two options at present: undertake the costly expansion or construction of facilities and thereby create the need for a greater number of trained staff members, or begin working to counteract the inflation of prison populations.  In the long term, only the latter of these is truly viable.  A variety of plausible solutions to the problem of overcrowding have been proposed, however, these proposals must be explored sooner rather than later.  The government cannot wait for another economic crisis to focus on frugality, especially in an instance with such broad opportunities for savings.  Acting to cut costs now will continue to aid the recovering economy and ensure economic stability in the future.

The Consequences of Overcrowding

The thought of inmates having to share cells and surrender other comforts because of the swelling populations in federal prisons is of little concern to most Americans.  Few members of the general public worry about the living conditions of the thousands of convicted criminals serving their sentences.  However, overcrowding can have an extensive impact on the operation of a prison, negatively affecting both inmates and staff in a variety of ways.  The inefficiencies that arise from the overcrowding problem amplify its cost to the government and, consequently, the taxpayer.

-infographic (cost of housing inmate vs. average household income)

Although they do serve to protect the public from criminals, U.S. prisons are intended to serve primarily as correctional facilities in the majority of cases, reforming those inmates who will eventually be released and rejoin the public.  For these individuals, maintaining an environment that can foster reform and facilitate their progress is paramount to the correctional aspect of the federal prison system.  Unfortunately, overcrowding often serves to undermine this goal.  In order to hold populations that exceed their capacities, prisons have been forced to sacrifice many of the elements vital to the psychological process of reform that inmates undergo.

The most significant effect of overcrowding on individual inmates is the increased demand on limited resources.  With prison budgets already stretched thin, only the bare minimum is allocated to address rising populations.  This means that the availability of inmate programs, particularly opportunities for rehabilitation and education, is seldom increased to meet the demands of a larger population.  These programs best prepare inmates for life after their release, and limited access has increased the likelihood that former convicts will be without the necessary guidance or skills to avoid returning to lives of crime.  Consequently, the number of repeat offenders has increased, thus perpetuating the overcrowding problem and leading to more costs for the American taxpayer.

Overcrowding can also have more subtle effects on prisoners.  Just as the availability of certain programs is often restricted by population growth, access to other resources is also limited.  Everything from library books to something as simple as space in the facility must be shared between a greater number of individuals; in many cases, this leads to psychological stress and anxiety.  Such stress can have a variety of adverse effects on inmates; the most troubling, however, is the prospect of it leading to agitation and thereby acts of violence.  Prisoners being held in facilities that are beyond their capacities find themselves in much closer proximity to other inmates at all times of the day; this increases the number of possible victims should a violent encounter occur, forcing inmates to be extremely cautious and staff members to be particularly vigilant.  Furthermore, overcrowding requires that many inmates share cells, and an alarming number of prisoners report that they live in fear of their cellmate.  Therefore, they feel threatened not only during meals and recreation among the general population, but also when they should be able to rest in relative safety.  This other face of the stress issue, that experienced by potential victims, is not only equally detrimental to the psychological process of reform, but also poses just as much threat of violence should an inmate act out of desperation or fear.

The many drawbacks of overcrowding for inmates are, of course, only one side of the issue.  The staff members who oversee and run the U.S. federal prisons on a day-to-day basis are also harmed by increasing populations.  The mounting responsibilities of operating beyond capacity seldom come with reinforcements or added compensation; the increased workload is left to the same number of employees earning the same wages.  Unfortunately, this demanding workload also entails a considerable amount of danger.  Increasingly outnumbered prison staffs must continue to maintain order and security using protocols inadequately designed for their current circumstances.  The increased job demands and threats to personal safety can lead to stress and fatigue among prison employees, which greatly increases the chance of a critical mistake being made.

Infographic: staff to prisoner ratio

One can plainly see that the intertwined psychological and physical impacts of prison overcrowding, both on inmates and staff members, are part of a cycle.  Rising stresses contribute to more problems, which in turn fuel stress; all the while their initial source, swelling populations, continues to grow unhindered.  This detrimental cycle cannot be broken under current procedures.  Of the existing options, augmenting facilities and staffs or eliminating the problem of overcrowding, only the latter is both affordable and viable in the long term.

Areas for Improvement

In order to effectively and efficiently address the issue of overcrowding in federal prisons, the source of the problem must be clearly identified.  In reality, there are a number of interrelated factors contributing to the growing populations of inmates throughout the United States.  While it could be argued that inadequate facilities with limited capacities are the issue, expansion of the prison system not only promises to increase both short and long-term costs, but fails to offer any solution to the continued growth of inmate populations.  Therefore, those factors directly contributing to this growth should be examined with priority over the physical limitations of the existing prison system.

 

Judicial Problems

The problem begins shortly after a felon is convicted, arising at the point of sentencing.  In varying efforts to ensure that the judicial system was impartial and unbiased, strict policies were set regarding the sentencing process.  Unfortunately, many of these policies have had unforeseen and undesired effects that now contribute to overcrowding.  For instance, minimum sentences were set for some criminal acts, leaving judges no leeway regardless of extenuating circumstances.  This means that even those criminals a judge may deem no longer a threat to the community must still serve at least the minimum period of time prescribed to his or her crime, leaving some convicts in prisons much longer than they would be if judges were permitted to exercise their discretion in terms of sentencing.

Similarly, the institution of harsher penalties for certain crimes and the elevation of some crimes to higher felony classes have led to longer sentences for inmates in cases that would have seen them out of the prison system considerably earlier in the past.  Furthermore, the possibility of having a sentence shortened as a reward for good behavior has also been eliminated to a certain extent for many inmates.  Just as some crimes now carry longer sentences under new laws, many also incur a minimum time to be served by the convicted.  This concept was implemented to ensure “truth in sentencing,” but it has cemented the effect of longer sentences on overcrowding by reducing the number of inmates eligible for early release.

The number of former inmates returning to prisons also contributes to unnecessary population growth.  No argument can be made against repeat offenders, particularly those who show flagrant disregard for the law, receiving more severe sentences for successive violations of the law.  Nevertheless, many of those returning to prisons are re-incarcerated as the result of minor infractions.  Just as the penalties for violating certain laws have become more severe in recent decades, so have those for violating parole.  Unfortunately, a slight breach of parole terms is now more likely to send a former inmate back to prison, once again preventing prisons from escaping the problem of overcrowding.

Social Problems

Factors contributing to rising populations in prisons also exist outside of the judicial system.  Several social elements also play a significant, albeit less direct, role in the issue.  It is a sad reality that those facing poverty are more likely to turn to crime.  Recent economic hardships can therefore account for a percentage of prison population growth.  Unfortunately, however, even as the economy shows improvement, a large number of Americans continue to live in poverty, their situations made inescapable by cuts to welfare and aid programs.  Similar cuts to rehabilitation programs also contribute to prison overcrowding, as unavailability of affordable treatment options increases the likelihood of conviction for those suffering from addiction to illegal substances.  Unfortunately, the impoverished are also more likely to use and become dependent on these substances.

Poverty also plays a role in the judicial system, despite efforts to make it less biased.  Defendants without financial means often cannot afford to post bail, and therefore await their trials in prison, unnecessarily contributing to the already overgrown population.  They are also more likely to depend on a court-appointed public defender, many of whom are burdened by massive caseloads and therefore cannot provide thorough and dedicated service to each client.  This makes the likelihood of conviction, and consequently the population of the prison system, increase.

Although the presence of multiple contributing factors, especially some that seem largely insurmountable, may make resolving the overcrowding issue appear to have little chance of success, it provides an advantage for policy makers.  Because many of the roots of overcrowding are independent of one another, they allow for multiple approaches to be taken at the same time without risk of overall failure should one be unsuccessful.  Simultaneously undertaking more than one solution would expedite the resolution process, providing more immediate relief to the overburdened prison system and its staffs.

Potential Solutions

It has been widely accepted that expansion will not resolve the problem of overcrowded prisons in the long run; therefore, a broad range of potential solutions addressing the contributing factors previously discussed have been proposed.  First and foremost, the minimum sentences attached to many crimes should be reduced.  While their implementation has likely led to more uniform sentencing, it has not necessarily ensured more just sentencing.  Judges should be granted more discretion so that sentences can be considered on a case-by-case basis.  Where appropriate, the possibility of early release should also be made available to inmates who exhibit good conduct, regardless of the length of their original sentence.

Efforts should also be made to reduce the number of inmates who return to prison after their release.  While parole violations should not be taken lightly, they should not immediately lead to re-incarceration either.  The parole process should focus on reform and utilize other, more constructive penalties, such as community service, for first-time violators.  Support and rehabilitation programs must also be supported to aid the post-release reformation process.  Finally, the government should focus on reducing the circumstances that lead to crime.  A portion of the money saved from restoring federal prisons to their operating capacities should be allocated for welfare and aid programs or other prevention programs.  Available funds should also be used to augment the existing education programs offered to federal prisoners, decreasing the likelihood that they will commit another offense out of necessity.

These proposals are designed to improve upon existing systems with little or no need for initial investment.  Much can be achieved simply through revision of current practices; savings can then be utilized to further the impact of the reforms already made.  Ultimately, despite the daunting nature of the problem, judicial and related social reforms will lead to reduced prison populations and better allocation of the funds provided by the American taxpayer.


05
Feb 14

The Shape of Higher Education: Personal Stake

The future of higher education is a constantly debated issue, with widely varying opinions on how it should be shaped and structured.  As a student, my views regarding this matter are naturally focused largely on my own experience.  I came to college because I recognized it as an opportunity to better myself and allow me to work in a field that I would not otherwise be able to enter.  To me, a college education is invaluable, and I have come to believe that such an opportunity should be available to anyone who wants it.  Nevertheless, I also realize that it is not the best path for everyone, nor is everyone going to college the best path for society.  The technical skill gap remains a large problem for American employers, and trades offer a secure living.  I cannot presume to dictate the best choice for anyone, but I generally believe that higher education does not only involve universities.  It is important to continually try to learn and improve oneself, but this can be through a large number of pursuits; therefore, I hold that our society should adopt a broader view of higher education as we move forward.


05
Feb 14

Unit Five: This I Believe

Below is the final script of my This I Believe Podcast, followed by the recorded version:

We have a tendency, almost a compulsion, to fill a void.  Human beings are uncomfortable with the undefined.  As children, this manifests itself as a fear of the dark, a fear of what might be waiting just beyond the limits of our vision.  We feel a need to fill the darkness with light.  And although we grow out of this fear of the dark, we remain uneasy with emptiness.

As a result, our generation is constantly occupied.  At first only a side-effect, it has grown into a crippling condition.  Technology made us faster, more productive versions of ourselves, but we took advantage of it to escape confronting the void.  Now, even when we have accomplished all that we must, we feel the need to be engaged by some other task.  We find any possible means to fill what little downtime we have, drowning out the silence with speakers and earbuds.  We have become so unaccustomed to quiet and calm that we now fear it as we once did the dark; we fear what might await us in the emptiness.

But I believe that quiet is a necessity, one that should be cherished rather than endured.  Just as the dark lends itself to rest and recovery after the long light of day, quiet is what allows us to process, analyze, and ultimately understand all of the noise.  Each day, we are bombarded by an exorbitant number of stimuli, all screaming for our attention.  If we never allow ourselves a moment without having to take in new information, it becomes impossible to reflect on anything that we have taken in.  Without quiet, a wealth of knowledge simply remains an incomprehensible mess, and is ultimately forgotten.

This notion may seem abstract, it may even seem to defy convention, but it is supported by the law of diminishing returns.  It has been proven that for each additional unit of time spent studying a given topic, successful learning begins to decrease.  At a certain point, new information is no longer the answer to understanding something.  Only contemplating what has already been learned can lead to pronounced increases in comprehension; for this, quiet is paramount.

And just as quiet nurtures new understanding, it also brings forth new ideas.  Consider Sir Isaac Newton, the infamous Englishman who first developed the concept of gravity.  He worked tirelessly on numerous experiments to support his hypothesis.  Nevertheless, Newton became aware of gravitation as he was simply strolling through an orchard, his mind unoccupied and undisturbed.

We often have similar, albeit less profound, experiences.  Most of what I’m including in this podcast was thought of in the shower, or while walking between classes.  Obviously sitting in silence is not the solution to every problem, and it would be far from productive, but we could all benefit from making the effort to free ourselves from distractions, whether it be by setting time aside to clear our minds or simply leaving our headphones at home once in a while.  It may seem inconvenient, but quiet can be unexpectedly powerful, and should not be underestimated.


22
Jan 14

Final Topics (Passion and Civic Issues Blogs)

I have decided to continue using my Passion Blog topic from the Fall semester: Cultures and Customs.  It gives me the opportunity to delve into some lesser-known traditions from around the world, and I have a hard time thinking of anything else that would keep my interest for another ten weeks.

For the Civic Issues Blog I will be examining U.S. Foreign Policy and Diplomacy.  Recently, there seem to be a lot of issues related to how problems being are handled, many of which are interrelated.  The Syrian Peace Conference being held in Switzerland, for instance, has fueled long-standing conflicts between several Western nations and Iran.  I hope to gain more insight into how complex issues are intertwined and the intricacies of modern-day diplomacy.


22
Jan 14

This I Believe Draft

As children, many of us feared the dark.  We feared what was unknown, what might be waiting just beyond the limits of our vision, and we feared the isolation that darkness often brought.  We grow out of this fear of the dark, of course, but perhaps not our fear of the unknown.

Our generation is constantly occupied.  At first only a side-effect, it has grown into a crippling condition.  Technology made us faster, more productive versions of ourselves, but we have become excessively dependent on it.  Now, even when we have accomplished all that we must, we feel the need to be engaged by some other task.  We find any possible means to fill what little downtime we have, drowning out the silence with speakers and earbuds.  We have become so unaccustomed to quiet and calm that we now fear it as we once did the dark; we fear the unknown horrors that it might hold.

But I believe that quiet is a necessity, one that should be cherished rather than endured.  Just as the dark lends itself to rest and recovery after the long light of day, quiet is what allows us to process, analyze, and ultimately understand all of the noise.  Each day, we are bombarded by an exorbitant number of stimuli, all screaming for our attention.  If we never allow ourselves a moment without having to take in new information, it becomes impossible to reflect on anything that we have taken in.  Without quiet, a wealth of knowledge simply remains an incomprehensible mess, and is ultimately forgotten.

This notion may seem abstract, it may even seem to defy convention, but it is supported by the law of diminishing returns.  It has been proven that for each additional unit of time spent studying a given topic, successful learning begins to decrease.  At a certain point, new information is no longer the answer to understanding something.  Only contemplating what has already been learned can lead to pronounced increases in comprehension; for this, quiet is paramount.

And just as quiet nurtures new understanding, it also brings forth new ideas.  Consider Sir Isaac Newton, the infamous Englishman who first developed the concept of gravity.  He worked tirelessly on numerous experiments to support his hypothesis.  Nevertheless, Newton became aware of gravitation as he was simply strolling through an orchard, his mind unoccupied and undisturbed.

We often have similar, albeit less profound, experiences.  Most of what I’m including in this podcast was thought of in the shower, or while walking between classes.  Obviously sitting in silence is not the solution to every problem, and it would be far from productive, but we could all benefit from making the effort to free ourselves from distractions, whether it be by setting time aside to clear our minds or simply leaving our headphones at home once in awhile.  It may seem inconvenient, but quiet can be unexpectedly powerful, and should not be underestimated.


16
Jan 14

Second Semester Concepts

For my “This I Believe” Podcast, I am considering writing/speaking about the importance of quiet.  Our present society seems so enamored with distractions (made constantly available by technology) that we seldom take time to unplug; however, in an increasingly busy world we need undisturbed time for clear thought more than ever.  Similarly, I have considered discussing the necessity of focus.  Studies have shown that multitasking is essentially an impossible feat, yet we continue to try juggling an ever-larger number of tasks.

In regards to my Passion Blog, I intend to continue writing on the topic that I used last semester.  Learning about unique customs from around the world was an interesting process, and although I have tried to come up with another subject, I cannot think of any that I would be able to easily sustain for ten weeks.

There are a lot of possibilities for the Civic Issues Blog, and it will obviously depend on the category that I am assigned.  However, I am particularly interested in foreign policy and issues of diplomacy, especially as many situations abroad (Iran’s nuclear program, the pending security agreement with Afghanistan, etc.) grow increasingly delicate.  Environmental issues are also very interesting, especially domestically.  From the BP oil spill to the more recent Freedom Industries water contamination, the balance between industry and environmental safety has become a large concern for the majority of Americans.

 


25
Nov 13

Lincoln and the Civic (Extra Credit)

War has a tendency to strengthen preexisting notions of one’s civic responsibilities.  Lincoln (2012) renders a powerful demonstration of this effect, as it follows the president on his trying path to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  While Lincoln himself certainly exhibits an ideal of selfless service, his eldest son (Robert Todd Lincoln) offers a more zealous, passionate example.

As a man of fighting age, Robert feels the call to join the other men defending the Union.  Like his father, he puts the welfare of the nation before his own interests, postponing his education and career in order to serve in the military.  In addition to a sense of duty, Robert feels that he must contribute to the war effort to preserve his own honor.

Ironically, seeing first-hand the horrors that he would face as a soldier do not deter Robert; his resolve to enlist is only strengthened by a feeling of solidarity with those already on the battlefield.  The closer he is to the war, the more Robert is aware of the patriotism and sense of duty that move him.

Throughout the film, Robert serves as the embodiment of common notions of the civic during the Civil War.  Because he is free of the political influences and motives that sway many of the Congressmen portrayed, he is able to display these notions freely and plainly; however, several other characters besides Lincoln and his son also act for the greater good.

While being questioned before Congress, Thaddeus Stevens swallows his pride to avoid jeopardizing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (although he placates himself by insulting his political enemies), and although many Congressmen exchange their votes for  the promise of government positions, some are swayed by the notion of equality alone.

Lincoln certainly portrays the less-than-ideal byproducts of the American political system, but it also reveals common civic ideals that have outlasted any political party or faction.  The sense of duty that created unlikely allies and moved men to action during Lincoln’s presidency are just as influential today.


21
Nov 13

TED Talk Reflection

I don’t think I’ve ever given a speech that went exactly as planned, but my TED Talk was definitely a manifestation of Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”).  Despite having run through the speech before class, I managed to omit a key point from my introduction.  Then I continued talking until I could no longer feasibly work it back into the speech.  Perhaps I should have slowed down and reworked my introduction on the fly, but, in retrospect, there are some simple measures I could have taken to counteract my forgetfulness.

Looking back at similar speeches (5 minutes without notes) that I had to give for an Engineering Design course, I realized where I went wrong.  While I took a similar approach in preparing for the TED Talk, familiarizing myself with the information and data that I wanted to present so that I could support my main points, I changed my approach with the key points themselves.  The Engineering Department teaches a presentation format called Assertion-Evidence; it’s a simple premise: you make a statement, then back it up.  Presentations in this format are usually accompanied by PowerPoint Presentations with a slide for each assertion, plainly stating the point to be made.

I designed my TED slideshow to show supporting evidence for each of the main points that I planned to make, but did not include the points themselves.  Having headings or titles that would have indicated the point I needed to make and breaking the presentation into a greater number of slides, each with more specific information, would have helped me remain on point and prevented the omission of important information.  From now on, I’ll try sticking to what I know works when it comes to oral presentations.  My TED Talk is linked below:


31
Oct 13

Unit Three Outline

I’ve changed topics and am now focusing on the shift in manufacturing of consumer goods from durables to disposables.  I want to explore several shifts in practices and attitudes, particularly among consumers, as well as changes in technology that have caused this shift.  Finally, I hope to determine whether the decrease in many products’ lifespans indicates a decline in quality, or is merely the result of more rapid growth and shifts in purchasers’ habits.

I plan to divide the paper into subsections, namely between changes in the practices of companies and manufacturers and those of consumers.  The paper will address these issues as they relate to the American market and its development from the post-WWII era to the present.

  • Introduction: Shift in manufacturing from consumer durables to disposables
    • Average lifetime of common products; products that were popular post WWII
  • Scarcity of WWII made consumers appreciate quality, long lifespan
  • Manufacturing shift from post-war boom in U.S. to foreign made
    • Americans now lack technical skills necessary to bring manufacturing back to U.S.
  • Shift in type of products demanded
    • New technology needs to be replaced more frequently because of increased growth (exponential development of technology)
  • Planned obsolescence
    • Forces consumers to upgrade more frequently
    • New products made incompatible with old
  • Warranties decreased
  • Shift in marketing: focus on newest models
    • Cars kept for a few years instead of a decade; leased instead of purchased
    • Electronics require frequent updating or replacing
  • Conclusion

24
Oct 13

Stasis Theory and Unit Three

When presenting a prolonged argument, it is important to take a systematic approach.  Stasis allows a speaker to better understand the argument that he or she is trying to make, and thereby the best methods for convincing others to agree.  When considering a paradigm shift, stasis can narrow an argument from generalities and broad concepts, getting a speaker to the heart of the matter.  Making a convincing argument is simply a matter of asking the right questions.

Stasis first raises the notion of the theoretical versus the practical.  A paradigm shift is, by its nature, not finite.  However, a strictly theoretical argument can never be definitively settled.  Therefore, it is best to argue any ambiguous concepts in terms of those things that are explicitly defined.  Using concrete evidence, such as statistics that have clearly changed over time, allows one to make a convincing argument about something abstract in terms of tangible, even quantifiable qualities.

This concept is closely tied to the questions of Conjecture and Definition, as it helps make the topic more specific and reveals more of its nature than a general claim can.  Arguments should, generally speaking, work toward increasing specificity in order to draw an audience along a thorough line of logic in favor of the speaker’s point.

The question of Quality, whether something is right or wrong, can be more difficult to maneuver.  Quality is often a subjective matter, and even more so when considering broad or undefined arguments.  However, it can often be determined without bias by examining an issue in terms of natural or widely accepted laws and moral standards.  By evaluating the issue on grounds that the audience is (almost) certain to share, a speaker can avoid alienating or offending his or her audience with unfounded opinions.

Finally, when it comes to Policy, or which actions should be taken in light of the argument made, a conclusion may not be necessary.  A course of action may be suggested or argued for, but none should be considered as definite for the same reason that opinion must be avoided in determining Quality.  Arguing too ardently for anything subjective risks losing the support garnered by the core of a speaker’s argument.

 


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