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YES! We Can Reinvent a Failed Prison System

YES! Magazine’s summer issue will grapple with how to solve the U.S.’s prison problem. Here's a look at what we’re planning—and a chance to share your ideas.
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Prison, photo by 710928003

Photo by 710928003

Ten years ago, YES! Magazine asked, "Is It Time to Close the Prisons?"

At that time, 2 million Americans were behind bars, the highest rate of imprisonment of any country in the world. There are now 2.3 million in prison, but, unlike 10 years ago, today people from all walks of life are questioning the prison system.

The summer issue of YES! Magazine will explore replacing our system of punishment, exclusion, and racial profiling with one that restores health and community, and fosters everyone's capacity to care for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Imprisoning massive numbers of people—including many thousands for drug possession, parole violation, and other victimless crimes—turns out to be an expensive failure. People in prison gain few of the skills needed to live successfully on the outside. Instead, they get lessons in crime, isolation, violence, and powerlessness. In fact, imprisoning people at this scale actually increases crime. And the system disproportionately punishes people of color and poor people, compounding the traumas of poverty and racism.

Today, the fiscal crisis confronting many governments is causing many more people to question our current criminal justice system. In particular, many are calling for an end to the failed War on Drugs and for treatment and education in prisons. Communities are  stepping up to assure the safety of their neighborhoods and to welcome home released inmates.

The summer 2011 issue of YES! Magazine will look at some of the most promising directions for reinventing our prison system. Experiments in restorative justice teach young people to settle disputes nonviolently; communities are reaching out to inmates and ex-inmates; ex-offenders are helping one another succeed on the outside. The savings from closing unnecessary prisons and juvenile detention facilities could pay for programs that help stop crime and violence—plus much more.

We may never be without prisons, but we could have far fewer prisons, far fewer people trapped in a cycle of imprisonment, far fewer broken families, and far lower costs, both monetary and social. Punishment and humiliation can be replaced by responsibility, restoration, and forgiveness.

Do you have suggestions or tips for this issue? Please note them in the comments field below, or email them to Thanks!

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and executive editor of YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a more just and sustainable world.


Raising Babies in Prison: Supporting the bond between inmates and their newborns gives these families a better start.

The New Jim Crow: How today's criminal justice system takes up where slavery and segregation left off.

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