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Punishment vs. Rehabilitation

Updated: May 8, 2022

America is the world leader for incarcerating its people. The Prison Policy Initiative estimated that in 2018, the United States had over 2.3 million people incarcerated in state prison, local jails, federal prisons, youth correctional facilities, immigration detention camps, territorial prisons, Indian Country and U.S. military prisons; out of a population of 324.2 million. The United States incarcerates more of its people than any nation in the world, according to The World Prison Brief. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that one in five prisoners in American jails and prisons have been convicted of drug-related crimes.

Behind these disheartening numbers are more disheartening statistics: racial disparities, according to The Sentencing Project, are stunning when it comes to incarceration. Black Americans are more than five times more likely than whites to be imprisoned.

Daryl Atkinson, an attorney and Co-Director of Forward Justice, is a black American who was incarcerated for a non-violent drug crime in 1996. Atkinson says, “America is a nation that is founded on values like liberty, equal opportunity, and redemption for all human beings’ rights and that all people have the right to inalienable rights.”

He goes on to say “the way our criminal justice system is operating is contrary to liberty, opportunity and the pursuit of happiness.” He was incarcerated in Alabama where he was subject to a 10-year sentence of which 40 months were mandatory. Recently, USA TODAY reported Alabama was cited by the U.S. Department of Justice for deadly brutality in the men’s prison and put state officials on notice for flagrant “disregard” for inmate safety and the constitutional rights of people in prison. Atkinson was incarcerated at St. Clair Correctional Facility, which was 170 percent over capacity; 60 percent of inmates were serving life without parole

During Atkinson’s incarceration at St. Clair Correctional Facility, he met a jailhouse lawyer named James McConico. McConico challenged him and 40 others to learn the 10 Amendments, the Bill of Rights and Alabama rules of evidence and criminal and civil procedure. Atkinson did the research, was released and is now a practicing attorney.

The question of punishment or rehabilitation hangs over prisoners across the nation. When prisoners are released from prison, they are stripped of basic rights as American citizens. Without family support most people end up back in prison and lose the sense of self-worth. They are denied student aid, a driver’s license, admittance to college or even a job. Because of his drug conviction, Atkinson was denied federal financial student aid, admittance to college and several law schools, as well as several jobs. Fortunately, Atkinson had the support of his wife and family and was able to earn associate, bachelors and law degrees. In 2014, as a result of his hard work and success, Atkinson was recognized and rewarded by working in the Obama administration as Champion of Change for removing barriers for people with criminal records and other issues facing incarnated people.

When asked what public policy changes he would recommend to move from punishment to rehabilitation; Atkinson stated the following for inside and outside of prison.


  • End solitary confinement, which denies acerbates human dignity; he argues the “deprivation of liberty is the punishment”, and any additional measures like solitary confinement are overkill and do more harm than good.

  • Robust identification of people’s mental health issues so they can be placed in therapeutic rehabilitation.

  • Offer vocational and educational opportunities to rehabilitate and prepare inmates for their return to society as productive law-abiding citizens or residents. The NC Department of Public Safety calculates approximately 37,000 inmates will be released into society.


  • There is a need to shrink the prison population, modify and reclassify the bail system, which as currently constructed acts as ransom for poor people.

  • Opening up opportunities for people who have done their time and paid their debt to society by removing barriers to employment, housing and education.

  • Create a hiring initiative providing opportunities for inmates who completed their sentence.

  • Advocating that money should be taken out of prison and re-invested into the communities that have been most harmed by criminal activity.

Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at New York University, said: “The notion that you need huge amounts of incarceration to control the crime rate doesn’t seem to be supported.’”North Carolina would do well to consider the recommendations submitted by an attorney of the state, a person who has suffered the demeaning aspects of prison and who has dedicated his life to make the prison system a rehabilitation process as opposed to demeaning and cruel punishment exemplified by the Alabama system.

Passing of North Carolina Senate Bill 562 would give prisoners with non-violent felony convictions and 10 years of good behavior, a second chance. This bill would be a step towards rehabilitation for North Carolina inmates.

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