Comments on Ted Koppel’s Prison Special

By · Saturday, October 20th, 2007

The television room at Taft’s minimum-security camp was packed last night. Many of the inmates gathered to watch Ted Koppel’s two-hour show on the Discovery Channel that detailed California’s troubled prison system.

Not long ago, Governor Schwarzenegger renamed California’s Department of Corrections. Now it uses the catchy phrase “Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections,” or some such variation. Yet as Ted Koppel’s show pointed out, the prison system is nothing more than a human warehouse.

These mainstream television shows and the news coverage chronicling that sad state of affairs inside our nation’s prison system pleases me. When I began serving my sentence, in 1987, the pendulum was swinging to the right with force. The nightly news frequently announced the need for tougher laws. Soon after my arrest, the sentencing laws changed. Those changes brought an end to parole in the federal system and a huge reduction in opportunities for prisoners to earn time off their sentences through good behavior. A few years later, more tough-on-crime legislation eliminated the funding for many college programs in prison. Then came Gingrich’s Contract on America, and along with it the No Frills Prison Bill, which eliminated more opportunities for growth in federal prison. The only news that came across for people in prison was bad news. Now, 20 years after the push to the right began, we’re beginning to see how those myopic changes are influencing society.

Ted Koppel’s prison special illustrated what happens when society sends more people to prison, for longer periods of time, while simultaneously eliminating opportunities for prisoners to develop skills or earn their way to freedom. The prisons become human warehouses, and those who serve time inside of them become further conditioned for failure. The more time society exposes an individual to “corrections’,” the less likely that individual is to function as a law abiding citizen in society. Instead of offering programs that would condition people for success, the prisons cram triple bunks into classrooms, gymnasiums, or any open space that is available. With all budget allocations being used for guarding and feeding the surging population of prisoners, few resources remain to offer opportunities through which motivated prisoners can develop skills. Last night’s show pointed out that fewer than 10 percent of California’s prisoners are able to participate in drug treatment or education programs. Instead, the prisoners become “yard dogs,” wasting away their time.

As more Americans see the consequences of locking offenders with no history of violence away for decades, my hopes are that they will call for improvements. Instead of warehousing human beings, I would like to see programs through which prisoners can earn their way to freedom. Warren Burger, a former Chief Justice, and Justice Kennedy, of the current Supreme Court both have called for society’s leaders to implement programs and policies that would motivate people in prison to prepare for contributing lives upon release.

After 20 years of surging prison populations, the time for prison reform is now.

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