Let Prisoners Contribute to Prison Reform Panel

By · Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Sandhya Somashekhar, a Washington Post staff writer, published an article reporting that Senator Jim Webb plans to introduce prison reform legislation this coming spring. That legislation will strive to create a national panel to recommend ways to overhaul the criminal justice system. As a long-term prisoner, I make a public audition for an opportunity to contribute to Senator Webb’s panel on prison reform.

Since 1987, I have been locked in various federal prisons of every security level. Despite having no history of violence or prior incarceration, I served many years locked inside higher security prisons alongside predatory offenders. I’ve served the past five years of my term inside minimum-security prisons that confine primarily nonviolent drug and white-collar offenders.

Throughout my odyssey, I have kept focus on my duty to reconcile with society through contribution, and also on the need to earn freedom through merit. I began serving my sentence when I was 23. While serving virtually my entire adult life in prison, I have come to know this system intimately. I have first-hand exposure to the flawed prison policies that condition perpetuating cycles of failure. The record I have built shows that I also know the prison reforms necessary to lower recidivism rates and make society safer.

More than 25 years ago, former Chief Justice Warren Burger urged reforms that would encourage those in prison to work toward earning and learning their way to freedom through his speech entitled Factories With Fences. Five years ago, Justice Anthony Kennedy urged The American Bar Association to lead the call for prison reform. The call is past due.

Senator Jim Webb is showing the courage necessary to explore ways to improve America’s prison system. With more than 650,000 prisoners scheduled to release each year, this issue should concern our entire society.

Undoubtedly, the Senator and his panel will listen to representative from the corrections system, from academia, and from other social scientists and community leaders. Yet this panel ought to include input from prisoners who have experienced the struggle of striving to grow through confinement. I request an opportunity to share what I have learned while living in the midst of prisoners numbered in the thousands, and from my own journey through a quarter-century of confinement.

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