Economic Crisis Opens Possibilities for Prison Reform

By · Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

I’ve been following newspaper reports that describe a crisis in the California penal system. Prison population levels have soared beyond the system’s capacity to handle effectively. Without sufficient space, administrators have crammed three prisoners or more into cells designated for one. Thousands more serve their time locked inside gymnasiums and rooms designed for recreation. Such crowded conditions bring consequences.

When too many people crowd together in tight spaces, a Darwinian evolution takes place. The strong prey upon the weak. Violence leads prisoners to band together according to race of geographical origins for protection or exploitation. A cycle of crime proliferates as the prison administrators disband programs that could help prisoners emerge as law abiding citizens. Administrative resources flow toward custodial needs, while departments that provide health services, food, and education or job skills starve.

Society pays a huge price for mismanaged prisons. When administrators care about nothing more than preserving the institution of confinement and ensuring that offenders serve as long as possible, recidivism rates soar. People leave prison without the skills or resources necessary to function in society. That lack of preparation and support frequently results in prisoners reverting to criminal behavior in order to meet the costs for basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter.

The vicious circle perpetuates itself. Once an individual processes through corrections, that person becomes so stigmatized by the experience that he struggles to find the traction necessary to function in society. Lobbyists for those that represent the corrections system embrace these failures, as they translate into higher expenditures. Rather than evaluate the flaws within the system of long-term imprisonment, they cite the need for more money to pay for guards and the businesses that provide the services for more cages of failure.

Yet the economic struggles of the state have caused leaders to take a closer look at wasteful government expenditures. While prison budgets have grown into billions, legislators and state executives have slashed funding for other state services like education, infrastructure, and healthcare. These problems have led the California penal system into complications with the federal judicial system. Federal courts will soon make a decision as to whether the California prison system violates Constitutional laws. Media reports suggest the legal ruling could force the prison system to free 50,000 prisoners. Conservatives who are drunk with arguments from the prison lobbyists claim that such judicial intervention will result in crime waves across the state. The only way to keep society safe, these biased protectors of bloated budgets argue, is to ensure the state has pulled every pound of flesh that vengeance entitles it.

Certainly, citizens have a need to isolate psychopaths who thrive on crime, violence, and predatory behaviors. Yet prisons have become wastelands that suck billions from a decreasing pool of public resources. Changing the name of corrections to reflect rehabilitation may be a slick marketing move, yet statistics clearly show that prisons breed failure. The longer society exposes a prisoner to corrections, the less likely that individual is to function in society.

Like the rest of the country, California needs prison reform. My own term of imprisonment began in 1987. During the more than 21 years I have served thus far, I have made a study of prisons and the people they hold. I also have made a commitment to overcome the struggles of this system through preparation, discipline, and meaningful contributions to society. In Transcending the Wall, an article I wrote much earlier in my journey, I offered suggestions from a long-term prisoner’s perspective on how to make better uses of these limited state resources.

America needs prison reform on a massive scale. Perhaps this horrendous economic crisis will bring the change we need. In the prison system, such change would include opportunities for nonviolent prisoners to earn freedom through merit.

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2 Responses to “Economic Crisis Opens Possibilities for Prison Reform”

  1. Zuleyma Sarmiento says:


    Mr. Santos:

    In your article entitled “Economic Crisis Opens Possibilities for Prison Reform” you indicate how troubled California’s prison system is with the overcrowding of facilities and more push to confinement than rehabilitation.
    You stated that with the recent economic crisis the government is looking at ways to slash expenses, effecting prisons and that it could lead to the release of 50,000 prisoners in California alone.

    My first question to you is: You stated that “America needs prison reform on a massive scale,” What type of reform do you believe should be done, where would they be constructed and who would they be run by?

    My Second question to you is: Based on your assumption that, “Federal courts will soon make a decision as to whether the California prison system violates Constitutional laws…(causing) the legal ruling…(to) force the prison system to free 50,000 prisoners,” If Federal courts do make a decision and force the prison system to free 50,000 prisoners, what do you think the effect will be on society?

    Thank you for your time Mr. Santos, for helping me understand Corrections and thank you for writing, I enjoy your blogs and your book.

    Zuleyma Sarmiento

  2. Hugo Sanchez says:

    Mr. Santos:
    In your article entitled ““Economic Crisis Opens Possibilities for Prison Reform” you speak of the horrible conditions prisoners face today in prison. The article speaks of overcrowding and the lack of skills provided for an inmate is one of the primary reasons why inmates upon release, commit another crime. The economic crisis we face today, a prison reform is soon to be the best solution to solve the overcrowding issue we face today.

    My first question to you is: The article speaks of a possible release of 50,000 inmates due to the economic crisis, Who do you think should be release and who should be in charge of choosing those inmates?

    My second question to you: Since people’s taxes pay for prison, do you believe the public should have a say on who should be release and how that process should occur?
    My third question to you; what are some other prison reform you believe are needed to solve the overcrowding issue in prison?

    Thank you, Mr. Santos for taking the time to respond to my questions. I started to read your book and find to be very interesting. It gives people a real perspective of how things go down in prison!

    Hugo Sanchez