High-security Prisons Create Vicious Cycles

By · Saturday, October 25th, 2008

Since 2003, I have been confined in minimum-security prison camps. I share living space with many offenders who serve time for white collar crimes. In this environment, most of the prisoners behave well. They are educated and focus on preparing for the lives they want to lead upon release. In higher security prisons, where I served time between 1987 and 2003, the atmosphere was much more hostile.

In higher security prisons, I always felt a tension in the air. Prisoners were locked inside two-man cells. At 6:00 each morning, guards walked around to unlock the steel doors of the prisoner rooms. Those who had experience of living in such environments were already awake, with shoes laced up and alert attitudes. Every man understood that violence, organized or otherwise, could erupt without prior notice. No one wanted to feel caught off guard.

High-security prisoners did not focus on the lives they wanted to lead following release. Many did not expect that release would ever come; prisons were the last stop for them. Such men consider their prison reputations to be of the utmost importance. No one wanted to be perceived as weak, as weak men were vulnerable to prison predators. Accordingly, prisoners in the penitentiary cheered for the killers in movies. They walked by indifferently while others were being stabbed or beaten. When officers asked for any type of assistance, the prisoners showed zero interest in helping. They considered themselves oppressed by a system of injustice, and they were not inclined to work toward redemption.

I’ve written extensively about prison life in my books and for publication on criminal-indictment.com. Those writings detail the complexities of living in confinement. My observations over the past 21 years persuade me that prison administrators have very little interest in creating environments that prepare or encourage offenders to think about the challenges they will face upon release. All resources focus on preserving security within the institution.

That myopic approach to management, however, leads to environments that seethe with hostility and create vicious mentalities. High recidivism rates, I believe, make the failure of “corrections” quite clear, yet prisons succeed brilliantly at warehousing humanity and perpetuating the cycle of failure.

To improve prisons, to make them safer for both staff and inmates, prison administrators and government legislators ought to implement programs that would encourage inmates to work toward leading contributory lives. The negativity that pervades every high security prison, from my perspective, breeds failure and inhumanity.

Besides hope, prisoners need clearly defined paths to reconcile for their past convictions.

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