Consider Prisoner Voices in Deliberations on Prison Reform

By · Sunday, December 14th, 2008

President-elect Obama spoke about reforms he intended to bring to America’s health care system. He said that in working to improve the system, as President he would bring all parties to the round table for discussion. Mr. Obama wants input from doctors, nurses, patients, administrators, and others who can suggest steps the Congress and our government should take to ensure that all Americans receive the health care they need.

I welcome our next President’s eagerness to receive input from all sides when it comes to reforming the health care system. I hope that President Obama and his team of leaders will apply the same progressive and inclusive strategy when it comes to reforming America’s bloated prison system.

Despite expenditures that exceed $60 billion each year on “corrections,” neither policy makers nor administrators consider the underlying reasons why so many people who serve time in corrections fail upon release. More than 650,000 prisoners return to society each year. Recidivism rates show that seven out of every ten of those people return to confinement within five years of their initial release. Now is the┬átime to reform America’s prison system.

As a man who has served time in prisons of every security level for the past 21-plus years, I feel as if I must contribute to the public debate concerning prison reform. Ever since my term began, I have worked hard to redeem the bad decisions I made during my early 20s and reconcile with society. I have kept a clean prison record throughout my odyssey in prison and worked to prepare for the challenges that will follow my release. Mercer University awarded me an undergraduate degree in 1992, and in 1995 Hofstra University awarded me a graduate degree. Yet as prisons currently operate, those accomplishments have zero influence on my classification as a federal prisoner.

We need prison reforms that will encourage prisoners to grow and prepare for law-abiding, contributing lives upon release. Few prisoners follow the example I strive to set because they cannot perceive any benefit while they serve their sentences. Rather than supporting my efforts to grow, administrators have punished me for reaching beyond the boundaries of the penitentiary. One warden prohibited me from completing a program at the University of Connecticut that would have led to a Ph.D.; other wardens have blocked me from visiting with mentors who could help me overcome the complications that will follow my quarter century in prison. I have been transferred from prison to prison and served lengthy periods in segregation as a consequence of my published writings. For detailed descriptions of those experiences, please view my article 65 Days in SHU

Our country confines more than 2.3 million people. Although a percentage of that population is psychopathic, predatory, and unfit for society, another percentage is capable of redemption. As an enlightened society, we need prison reforms that will encourage such adjustment patterns. My experience as a long-term prisoner, together with what I have learned from other prisoners, convince me that the key to successful prisons requires an incentive system that would allow prisoners to earn gradual privileges, and in time, freedom.

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