Are All Prisoners Criminals?

By · Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Brandon is a criminal justice student who is using my writings as a resource to broaden his understanding of America’s prison system. He posted a few comments that sought my perspective on the potential for real reform within our prison system. I welcome an opportunity to respond.

Obviously, I write from the perspective of a long-term prisoner. Brandon asked whether I thought criminals really reformed themselves in prison. The way Brandon framed his question, I would have to answer no. A criminal is a person who rejects the code of law-abiding conduct that holds society together. Yet unlike Brandon’s apparent perception, I do not consider all people in prison criminal. Many people in society may reject my reasoning, so I’ll try to explain.

In the mid-1980s, when I was in my early 20s, I sold cocaine. That was a crime and I was appropriately convicted for my criminal actions. I’ve been locked inside various prisons for the past 21-plus years as a consequence of my conviction. Since my imprisonment began, however, I have worked hard and consistently to reconcile with society. I am remorseful for having broken the law, and for those two years I spent as a criminal who sold cocaine.

After all of the time I have served in prison, however, I no longer identify with the bad decisions I made when I was 21 and 22. I recently turned 45. I feel aligned with law-abiding society, even though others, presumably like Brandon, will always consider me a criminal.

During my imprisonment, I have worked hard to create a place for myself as a law-abiding and contributing citizen. I have earned two university degrees, published several books, written extensively as an offer of atonement, contributed to society in myriad ways, built a strong network of support with community leaders, and nurtured a loving family. I am confined in prison, but I do not consider myself a criminal nor do I identify with the criminal lifestyle in any way.

As a long-term prisoner, I consider it my duty and responsibility to contribute to a more enlightened criminal justice system. My motivation is not to advance my release date. I have served nearly 22 years already and I feel totally at ease with serving these remaining three years before my scheduled release. The motivation behind my work is to contribute to a safer society by suggesting reforms that would lower recidivism rates and prison operating budgets.

I am convinced that by introducing programs that would encourage prisoners to earn freedom, taxpayers would see more prisoners reject the criminal lifestyle, embrace the concepts of good citizenship, and emerge as law-abiding citizens. Yet as long as prison infrastructures extinguish hope, and as long as policies suggest that all people in prison will always live as criminals, recidivism rates will remain high and the cycle of failure will continue.

Statistics show that seven of every ten people in prison return to confinement after release. Citizens seem reluctant to accept that the longer society exposes an offender to corrections as the system currently operates, the less likely that individual is to emerge as a law-abiding citizen. Prisons condition failure, and we need real prison reforms to reverse the troubling trends. Unfortunately, lobbyists who represent the corrections economy have been successful in indoctrinating Brandon and others with propaganda that misrepresents the reality as I have experienced it. To believe that the system of corrections wants to reduce recidivism and see more people emerge as law-abiding citizens is akin to believing that the tobacco industry wants people to stop smoking.

Certainly, the privilege I have had of educating myself has made a difference in my life. I was not reared in a home that placed a lot of emphasis on education. The values of my childhood shaped the decisions I made. I feel strongly that administrators and citizens ought to encourage education programs in prison. The more skills prisoners develop, and the more they develop their understanding of society, the more likely they will reject criminal lifestyles. Investments in education contribute to lower recidivism rates, safer societies, and a better America.

Just as citizens have accepted radical changes in the past, like the abolition of slavery, the reversal of prohibition laws, and the expanding of women’s rights, I do believe society has the capacity and the wisdom to change, to improve. My job is to help others see how we can improve our nation’s prison system. I hope my writing helps.

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2 Responses to “Are All Prisoners Criminals?”

  1. Ana Diaz says:

    What “real prison reforms” do you suggest should be implemented in our prison systems in order to reduce this “condition of failure”, besides education programs?

  2. Ana Diaz says:

    February 27, 2009
    Mr. Santos:
    In your article entitled, “Are all Prisoners Criminals” you indicate the necessity for prisons to be reformed in order for criminals to reject a criminal lifestyle.
    My question to you is, if prisons “condition failure” what other options do you suggest should be implemented in order to deter crime?
    Thank you for your contribution.