Family Ties Lower Prison Recidivism

By · Thursday, March 12th, 2009

Asha Nettles asked me how I thought family ties, and personal commitments such as marriage influenced whether prisoners would revert to crime upon release. She also asked whether I thought prison administrators should limit their hiring to those who believed in the power of rehabilitation. I’m grateful that Asha has given me this privilege of contributing to her education.

Those charged with the unenviable challenge of managing our nation’s prison system could serve society better if they encouraged those in prison to nurture strong family and community ties. In the Second Chance Act of 2007, the U.S. Congress published findings indicating that strong family and community ties were the best indicators for success upon release. Unfortunately, the members of Congress also found that prison administrators did not make use of this resource. My experience has been that Prison Policies Block Families From Nurturing Ties With Loved Ones in Prison.

I was married in a prison visiting room in 2003. I had been incarcerated for 15 years before Carole and I married. She was the inspiration that drove me to educate myself and prepare for a law-abiding life upon release. I worked hard to achieve goals that I set, as I wanted to prove myself worthy of the woman to whom I would pledge my life. It was the thought of marriage that gave me the strength to discipline myself. Since Carole became my wife, I have felt even more motivated to live as a contributing citizen.

Prisoners who lack family support sometimes adjust in negative ways. They shut themselves off from society and become one with the prison community. They hang out with “the homies” and embrace the us-versus-them culture of the penitentiary. The more difficult administrators make it for those in prison to sustain strong family ties, the more they simultaneously condition prisoners to fall susceptible to the pernicious influences of the penitentiary. Frequently, those influences lead to high recidivism rates. The administrators who run the prison system set the policies by which all prisoners must live. They also establish the culture or ethos of the prison staff members. The more oppressive the atmosphere, the more difficult it becomes for a prisoner to muster the strength and will necessary to maintain a positive attitude. Prison administrators can lead more prisoners to adjust in ways that will help them emerge successfully if they encourage the people who work in prisons to support positive adjustments.

My personal experiences, together with what I have learned from other prisoners, convince me that those who strive to build strong community support and to educate themselves stand the best chance of successful re-entry. Prison administrators ought to encourage such adjustments.

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