The Prisoner’s Dilemma

“I used to be fast, man. I’ll race you to that gas station.”

There is only one group of American citizens that are constitutionally guaranteed the right to medical services, and you may be surprised to find that it isn’t politicians, law enforcement, the elderly, or even veterans—it’s prisoners. The U.S. has always had a love-hate relationship with its law-breakers. We romanticize the old-timey gangsters, the outlaws, and the reclamation stories about overcoming turmoil and coming out stronger in the end (plus, when was the last time that there was a U.S. president that didn’t admit to ingesting illegal drugs?). And we hate the inner-city gun violence, gangs, and “thug culture” that seems so pervasive in the media today. The prison-industrial complex has been getting a lot of flak in the U.S. for well over a decade (and rightfully so). Often lost in the talk about profit motives and unjust penalties for petty crimes are the effect it has on the prisoners themselves once they are released into a different world from when they last left.


I began running with Back on My Feet (BoMF) a couple months ago. Back on My Feet is a non-profit organization that aims to combat homelessness by having daily runs at 5:30am in which residents of homeless shelters are grouped together with non-homeless runners, and they run about 3-5 miles around Philadelphia. The program is designed for former drug users, ex-convicts, or otherwise down-and-out types to get a regiment centered around fitness and a routine. There are milestones that once reached entitle the members to new goods – new shoes, running equipment, etc.—and services—resume editing and interview workshops. The shelter that I run with is Ready, Willing, and Able (RWA), and consists mainly of ex-cons that are being reintroduced into society.

I don’t normally like waking up early. In fact, I only do it when I have to. It’s even harder to wake up early when it’s cold out, which it always is at 4:45am. When I first began running with BoMF I basically tried to get each session over with quickly so that I could go back to the friendly confines of my own bed. I soon realized that no matter how fast I ran to the meeting place, or how fast I sprinted during our morning jog with the RWA members I would still get home at the same time. I might as well try enjoying this I figured. Soon waking up early was still difficult, but rather than lament that I felt like I was one of the only people awake on the east coast I felt that I should embrace it. As I leave my apartment and jog towards the meet up I will frequently stop to walk and look at the sky above me. There are stars out and lots of them. Just about all of the neon signs are turned off in Philadelphia in those early hours and I can see as far into the universe as my contact lenses allow me. There is something quite surreal about looking up and seeing distant, tiny lights that you have never noticed before through your own warm breath walking alone in a city of one and a half million. Perhaps it is this feeling of isolation and quiet that allows strangers to share things about their life, or perhaps it is just frustration.

Technically the program is designed so that one has no idea who are the ex-homeless and who are there for support—but it’s pretty evident who’s in each camp. I met ‘Steve’ during my first session of BoMF and we exchanged the usual pleasantries that are the norm for a “res-member” (someone who is a resident of one of the shelters), and a “non-res-member” (someone like me, just an outsider looking to run). At about mile 2 we had exhausted talk of weather and sports and so we just ran side by side quietly. My body had acclimated to the temperature by now but Steve was sweating profusely, his balding head spewing a trail of steam in his wake as we glided alongside the Schuylkill River. He turned to me asked if I had any plans for the end of the year. I wasn’t really sure what he meant by that but I could tell it was his way of asking me to ask about his own plans. Steve then began to discuss how hard it is to find a job that pays well enough to allow him go back to school. Already equipped with a GED, he always wanted to go to a technical school to become a certified mechanic in a two-year program. This December he was finally moving out of the halfway house and onto another phase of his life, but it did not come without plenty of meetings with social workers and temp agencies.

He seemed to have done the math thoroughly because he was spouting out figures on how much he would need to make per week, per day, and per hour in order for him to pay for technical school. He said that he was beginning to look at rent in different areas in Philly for when he leaves RWA. He also said that a lot of the places he was looking at were in areas that are too expensive and so he would have to choose between living in a decent area but barely having enough money left over to eat after savings, or to live in “the ‘hood” but have some extra money. He went on to say that living in the latter areas is what led him to prison in the first place, and that going back there would be a recipe for disaster. I asked what he thought he would do and he said that he would try to live in a nicer area but try to take lots of side jobs and see how much money he could save for a year or two and hopefully he could gauge the probability of him going to school. We made that final turn down Bainbridge St. and headed towards the Hess station that was light up like E.T.’s spaceship in the forest that is Broad St. at 6am.

How does someone get out of a cycle like this? Steve is lucky in a way—he has no kids, no child-support, and no wife, but he will still face an uphill battle for the foreseeable future. Just supporting himself and hitting the reset button will take the better part of a decade, and for a forty-something year old with a history of drug abuse and living a hard life, that’s looking to be on the other side of the halfway point. It is easy to talk about statistics to report how our prison system is failing on so many levels. And how (like many other things in our society) the profit-motive doesn’t align with the mission of the industry, which is namely to rehabilitate those that are incarcerated, and should therefore be taken out of the hands of those that seek to make the profit. We are so inundated with numbers and reports that they have virtually no meaning. What is the number that will create outrage? 2.3 million adults are currently incarcerated, which is about 740 per 100,000 people or 0.7% of the US population. Prison private telecom systems, health insurance contracts, and the bail industry are making profits in the billions each year. Does it matter if it is 1 billion, 2 billion, or 50 billion? At what point do we stand up and say something is wrong here when nearly 40% of those incarcerated are African-American? Is it when the percentage creeps up to 43, or how about a nice round 50%? These are people, plain and simple. It’s easy for me to say this now only because I have met some of these people, but this system is self-sustaining and every generation that has a high percentage of its members in jail will surely have even higher percentages in the next generation. There are some members of RWA that are in their early 20s that have multiple children who they no longer see. Where are these kids going to end up in 15 years?

The black sky was finally half purple, with what almost looked like blue along the Ben Franklin Bridge. For all the things not going his way, Steve doesn’t seem to mind as much when he’s running. He beat me to the gas station—by a lot actually—then turned around and gave me a big smile while I gasped for the frigid air that was no longer being warmed by my throat sufficiently. This isn’t about me realizing that if there’s a will there’s a way. This isn’t a “things will get better if we work at it” story and it certainly isn’t Jim and Huck. This is about awareness and understanding. This is about making the connection from Steve’s life story to the millions of others who are similar only because they are all victims of the prison industrial complex. This is about realizing that even a positive ending to Steve’s story, which we’re all hoping for, is insignificant compared to the systemic changes that are needed to avoid creating millions more down-and-out Steves generation after generation.


Filed under Poverty and the Justice System

5 responses to “The Prisoner’s Dilemma


    Good article Jon. Thank you for your insights. Nita Spielberg

  2. Drew Bono

    Just another case of the Ovarian Lottery. Great article Jon

  3. Amanda

    After reading this I saw an info-graphic that it’s more expensive to incarcerate a person for 4 years than to educate them for 13:

  4. Cmar

    “What is the number that will create outrage?” Best line. Well done, Mr. Zaid.


  5. Thanks for highlighting Back on My Feet, Jon – my sister used to participate in that program and it sounds awesome.

    You mentioned that rehabilitation should be the primary purpose of our prison system. While I agree that rehabilitation is an essential objective, deterrence is an equally important goal and should always be taken into account when analyzing a prison system. That said, Norway has established some very interesting prisons (–catch-UK.html) that seem excellent at rehabilitation and no worse than U.S. prisons at deterrence. These prisons are unlike their U.S. counterparts in several ways: they are all publicly run, they are significantly cheaper, they treat prisoners like people rather than animals, and they have the lowest recidivism rates in the world. Moving the U.S. prison system in this direction would be more ethical, economically beneficial, and effective at reducing criminal behavior than the current U.S. system.

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