Prisons Fail to Prepare Offenders for Law-Abiding Lives

By · Saturday, October 25th, 2008

Many social scientists have observed that bureaucracies, in time, take on a life of their own. Prisons follow this pattern. Where they were originally designed to confine offenders into small cells until the men became penitent, they have since morphed into complex, total institutions that place little interest in whether offenders become penitent or whether they prepare for law-abiding lives upon release.

When I was studying toward a graduate degree at Hofstra University, I read extensively about the Puritan experiment in developing the penitentiary system. Penitentiaries began in Pennsylvania. Prisoners who were sentenced to serve time, as I recall reading, were led to their cells with a mask over their heads. They were locked in solitary confinement and had absolutely zero contact with the outside world. They had access to a Bible, but nothing more. Total silence permeated the penitentiary. Those locked inside were supposed to contemplate their misdeeds, and emerge reformed at the conclusion of their terms.

In the beginning, a sentence of three years would have been considered long-term imprisonment. Yet prisons advanced as the years turned into decades, and the decades turned into centuries. They went through stages where new motivations were introduced. Some systems required prisoners to work. Some systems encouraged rehabil­itation programs.

The current system that has existed for the past few decades has focused on warehousing. Thoughts about rehabilitation, or concerns about how the individual emerges from confinement no longer factor into the goals of confinement. Besides that, prisoners now serve sentences that are much, much longer.

These institutions have become part of a large, industrial complex. There are many lobbyists who represent multi-billion dollar businesses to support the prison system. Those businesses sell the concrete and steel that builds these prisons, the fences and barbed wire that enclose them, the food and services that sustain them. None of those businesses wants to see the prison boom slow.

Prison institutions have become profit centers, employing tens of thousands of Americans. The interest is in seeing them continue to grow, and high recidivism rates provide excellent job security.

As a long-term prisoner, I have never felt encouraged by the prison system to prepare for a law-abiding life upon release. Rather, my efforts to educate myself, to contribute to the literature, and to build an extensive network of support has exposed me to significant problems from prison administrators. These institutions are designed to meet the challenges of responding to gang violence and contraband. They do not function well in encouraging offenders who strive to beat the cycles of failure.

Executive staff members have specifically told me that I should stop writing, and that I should stop striving to build a presence beyond prison boundaries. One staff member told me that she only cared about preserving the security of the institution, and had no interest in efforts I was making to prepare for a law-abiding life upon release. That has been my reality of living in prison.

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