Overhaul the Prison System: Prison release based on merit not calendar

By · Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

If society does not expect prisons to do anything more than warehouse human beings, then prisons succeed brilliantly. Yet, if taxpayers want a better return on their massive investment of public funds, then they need to overhaul the prison system.I am hopeful that the change our political leaders promise to bring to our country will include massive prison reforms. After more than 21 years in prison, I am convinced that the system needs much more than a few tweaks. We need to reevaluate the purpose of confinement, and we need to give it a complete overhaul.

Prisons cost taxpayers more than $60 billion each year to fund. They continue a cycle of failure, as statistics show that seven of every ten people who serve time return to confinement again after release. The reason behind these dismal results is that the infrastructure of confinement does not encourage those in prison to prepare for law abiding lives upon release. Instead, the entire focus is on preserving the security of the institution and warehousing humanity. That toxic combination encourages prisons to focus on serving time rather than preparing for release. The longer an individual is exposed to “corrections,” the less likely that individual is to succeed upon release.

Some prisoners have no interest in living as contributory citizens. Many more, however, would welcome opportunities to earn their freedom through merit. I advocate an incentive system, as I am a firm believer in the power of positive reinforcement. If prisons were not so effective at extinguishing hope, more people in prison would strive to improve their skills. Those with higher skill sets would be more likely to emerge as law-abiding citizens.

One of the biggest problems in America’s prison system, in my opinion, is that administrators provide no path through which an inmate can redeem himself. The prisoner is categorized according to past deeds, yet no mechanisms exist for the prisoner to reconcile with society. A better approach, I think, would be to offer an objective path to full citizenship. The turning of calendar pages alone does not help prepare an offender for society, as he has no control or influence on the passing of time. Without steps that he can work toward, a prisoner frequently focuses on penitentiary life. That adjustment pattern leads to continuing failure.

I am convinced that prisoners should have opportunities to work toward a better life. Effective prison reform would encourage prisoners to envision the type of citizen they wanted to become. They ought to work in programs that will allow them to learn new skills and values. By isolating prisoners from society and extinguishing hope that they may change their lives for the better, these institutions breed continuing failure. That is a bad public policy.

I’ve written about more specific suggestions through articles available at www.criminal-indictment.com.

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