I heard a story the other day about a prisoner who was about to be released from decades of solitary confinement directly into society, with no parole officer or halfway house to ease the transition.
Some folks might shrug and say that he should be free to go because he has 'paid his debt to society.' Which makes no real sense to me - how exactly does sitting alone in a small room for dozens of years make up for anything?
A more practical and relevant question, in my opinion, would be:
Has society paid its debt to him?
Because it seems to me that many people end up in prison because society let them down in some important ways, including unskilled parenting that emphasizes punishment and control, an educational system that does not foster curiosity or creativity or prepare people to make valued contributions to society, the cost and difficulty of obtaining mental health/addictions treatment, etc.
I envision that someday prison will be re-purposed as a place to receive the services that can fill in the gaps that prevent people from functioning well in society. There are many prison programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism -- things like addictions treatment, cognitive skill training, and others -- but there are not yet enough spots in these programs to meet the demand, and the waiting lists can be very long.
Of course there will always be a need to prevent the small percentage of criminals who are are simply too damaged to become healthy again from doing further harm. And this can be done humanely, while still giving them a way to make some kind of valued contribution to society from a safe distance if they wish.
There's a respectable body of research accumulating that tells us that punishment is not an effective way to induce sustainable, self-monitored behavior change. Parents are referencing this research to change the way we raise our kids, and perhaps there will be less need for prisons after this shift is complete.
Maybe this generation we are raising will be able to implement massive cultural change. Someday they might look back on our current penal system and consider it shortsighted at best, barbaric at worst.
To be fair, things are already changing for the better -- every day I see justice system personnel learning to communicate more effectively and reduce recidivism. I've got a great seat from which to view the transformation, so I'll keep you posted.