Prison Reforms We Can Believe In

By · Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

Ultimately, society relies upon these prisons as tools to encourage law-abiding behavior. Yet flaws within the design of the prison system render it less effective than its potential. Statistics show that more than six of every ten people in America’s prison system return to confinement after their initial release. Reforms can lower those recidivism rates and thereby make society safer.

Reforms must include both legislative and administrative changes. Members of Congress have passed laws that rely upon long-term imprisonment to punish offenders. That approach may satisfy a collective thirst for vengeance, yet high recidivism rates suggest the ancillary effects of prolonged incarceration fail to make society safer. The longer a person serves in the corrections system, the less likely that person will emerge as a contributing, law-abiding citizen. Besides passing laws that punish criminal behavior, Congress ought to pass legislation that would encourage offenders to reconcile with society. Too many prisoners serve lengthy sentences’ without hope.

Individuals who hail from disadvantaged backgrounds fill our nation’s prison system. Most are people who have felt motivated by the pursuit of immediate gratification for their entire lives. When confronting terms of years or decades, many prisoners lack the sustained will power necessary to consider, much less preparing for the challenges that will await release. As Congress passes stimulus packages designed to jump start the American economy, Congress could pass new laws that would motivate prisoners to work toward redemption.

The way laws now stand, prisoners feel as if they have no control over their futures. Only the turning of calendar pages matter in computing release dates. With those policies in place, many prisoners adjust poorly. Instead of investing the energy to educate themselves in ways that will help them find employment upon release, prisoners numb themselves to the pains of confinement. They waste hours each day with television, table games, and obsessive devotion to recreational activities. Rather than building resources that will help them emerge successfully, prisoners distance their thoughts from the outer society. Without hope of having any influence over release dates, many prisoners adjust to confinement in ways to help them forget their predicament.

Legislative changes could reverse the troubles that accompany prisoner apathy. Punishment should not be the only factor in the equation. Congress should implement new laws that provide offenders with mechanisms to earn their freedom through merit. Such legislation could come through the reinstatement of a parole board. Congress could create laws that would encourage prisoners to work toward advancing their release dates with measurable accomplishment. Achievement of educational credentials, job skills, or community contributions, for example, could gradually increase levels of freedom.

Nordic countries make use of ombudsman panels in their criminal justice systems. As I understand that system, a panel of citizens from the prisoner’s community evaluates the offender’s history. Together, the offender and the ombudsman panel establish a schedule the offender could follow through his imprisonment. They would design that schedule in a way that enabled the offender to make amends to society and to work toward re-entry. Through the more enlightened ombudsman system, the Nordic countries punished illegal behavior while simultaneously encouraging offenders to work toward becoming contributing citizens.

Besides legislative changes, real prison reforms would require administrative changes a well. We need policies that allow and encourage inmates to prepare for successful re-entry. Administrators place too much emphasis on preserving the sanctity of the prison system. Such policies come at the expense of programs through which prisoners could build stronger resources. Rather than creating obstacles that restrict inmate communication with society, effective prison reforms would encourage inmates to build and nurture ties with legitimate society.

Effective prison reform would eliminate restrictions on telephone and visiting access. They would implement e-mail systems that would allow prisoners to join the 21st century and interact with society. Administrators would encourage inmates to participate in work-release and community study programs while they served their sentences. Those prisoners whom administrators classified as minimum-security should serve their sentences in environments that would allow them to earn a living; they could pay for the costs of their confinement while simultaneously contributing to the support of their families or to accounts that would assist them upon release.

American taxpayers fund these human warehouses with $60 billion per year. Strong unions that represent correctional officers and lobbyists that represent businesses supplying goods or services to prisons urge the perpetuation of these failure factories. Yet with President Obama’s election, and a more liberal Congress, possibilities for meaningful prison reform are more likely than ever. Strategies to govern from the bottom up should not leave out America’s 2.4 million prisoners. We crave reforms that would allow us to work toward redemption and toward becoming a part of the mosaic that makes America truly a great and enlightened society.

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