Hope Leads to Positive Prison Adjustments

By · Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Daisy Gonzalez commented on my article entitled Motivating Prisoners to Make Positive Changes. She asked whether I thought the correctional system had an influence on the decisions prisoners made. She also asked about the influences family members had on prisoner decisions. I feel grateful for this opportunity to respond to both of Daisy’s questions.

As a long-term prisoner, I can say with certainty that both the correctional system and the prisoner’s contact with society have an influence on adjustment patterns.

The prison is a total institution. That means administrators set the policy by which all prisoners must live. Administrative decisions determine our access to basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. They also structure our time and set the tone of the culture. I have been locked in prisons with oppressive, controlling regimes and I have been confined in prisons with real leadership at the helm. Since administrators set the culture by which all prisoners must live, they also set the climate for adjustment patterns that most prisoners will pursue.

My experience and interactions with others convince me that the harsher the conditions administrators set, the more likely prisoners will be to respond with behavior that citizens would consider inappropriate. In such environments, prisoners do not contemplate steps they may take to emerge successfully as law-abiding citizens.

Instead, they engage in disturbances. They form gangs. They adjust in ways that will help them overcome the oppression they feel.

Conversely, when administrators recognize that judges send people to prison as punishment and not for additional punishment, they create environments that motivate prisoners to adjust positively. Through the use of incentives, the administrators encourage prisoners to educate themselves, to develop vocational skills, to strengthen family and community ties.

Even the U.S. Congress has made findings that show close family ties represent one of the best ways to lower recidivism rates of prisoners. Yet in the Second Chance Act, Congress found that prison administrators do not sufficiently encourage prisoners to form close ties with society. On the contrary. My experience has been that they erect obstacles that make it more difficult for prisoners to hold families together. They limit prisoner access to visits, telephone, and mail.

When prisoners lose hope, they become more susceptible to the negative influences that pervade the penitentiary. When they have hope, they strive to become one with the fabric of society. As high recidivism rates show, however, most prison administrators expertly create atmospheres that extinguish hope. That is why I believe we need fundamental prison reforms.

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