In our interconnected globalized world, no country operates in isolation. That’s why governments and their citizens outside the United States watch what happens within our borders, form impressions, and make decisions that can have both subtle and overt impacts on how they engage with us.
One American policy area that’s frequently reviewed is the field of corrections, particularly jails and prison conditions. Negative perceptions of American correctional facilities, including policies and practices, carry significant damaging consequences for the United States, affecting its reputation, diplomatic relationships, international cooperation, domestic policies, and overall societal well-being. Why?
Reputation and Diplomatic Relationships:
The United States has long prided itself on embodying and advocating for democratic values and human rights. However, negative information about its jails and prison systems weaken this image and erode its moral authority to advocate for these principles. Criticism of the United States on these goals undermines America’s standing among nations, leading to a loss of influence and credibility in international forums. This includes situations in which foreign governments are concerned about the treatment of their citizens incarcerated in U.S. prisons. Reports of human rights abuses, crowding and overcrowding, inadequate services, and violence within American correctional facilities create tensions and conflicts with other nations, straining diplomatic ties and undermining cooperation in areas such as trade, security, and intelligence sharing. Moreover, countries may hesitate to extradite individuals who are wanted by different justice systems in the United States if they fear that individuals will face harsh conditions or inhumane treatment. This reluctance impedes transnational efforts to combat organized crime, terrorism, and other cross-border criminal activities, limiting the collective ability to address global crime.
Negative perceptions of American correctional facilities can extend beyond the political realm and impact the private sector as well. International businesses, investors, and tourists may choose not to visit the United States or be deterred by negative portrayals, resulting in decreased foreign direct investment, trade, and tourism revenues. Adverse perceptions can harm the economy, reducing job opportunities and hindering economic growth.
Leadership on Human Rights
As a champion of human rights, the United States has an obligation to ensure that its correctional facilities adhere to internationally recognized standards. Negative perceptions of American prisons undermine its moral authority to advocate for human rights globally. This weakens its ability to influence other countries to improve their own prison systems, their wider criminal justice systems, and promote broader respect for human rights worldwide.
The impact of negative perceptions extends beyond diplomacy and international relations. Deplorable conditions within American correctional facilities reflect systemic issues in society. Poor prison conditions and human rights abuses frustrate attempts to rehabilitate and reintegrate prisoners, perpetuating a cycle of recidivism. This not only harms the individuals directly affected but also has broader societal consequences. The overall goal of the criminal justice system should be to facilitate successful reentry into society, and addressing these issues requires comprehensive reform efforts, transparency, and collaboration both domestically and internationally.
The future is now
International perceptions of American correctional facilities are wide-ranging and multifaceted. But when they are negative, it can damage America’s reputation, strain diplomatic relationships, hinder international cooperation, and have economic ramifications. Furthermore, this state of affairs compromises the United States’ ability to lead on human rights issues and detracts from the overall well-being of American society. To restore its global standing, strengthen diplomatic ties, and contribute to a more just and humane world, federal, state and local governments need to allocate sufficient resources (i.e., tax revenue) to comprehensive correctional reform efforts, including prioritizing effective rehabilitation programs. Hopefully, this approach can help the United States change its international reputation as leader in mass incarceration, and foster a society that prioritizes justice, dignity, and successful prisoner reintegration.