Prison Camps Waste Taxpayer Resources
Prison reforms should include the elimination, or significant restructuring, of minimum-security camps. I have been a federal prisoner since 1987, and since then I’ve served time in high-security penitentiaries as well as Federal Correctional Institutions. In 2003, administrators transferred me to serve the final decade of my sentence inside the open boundaries of various minimum-security camps. I’ve seen, studied, and experienced much of what our prison system has to offer. These camps, I’ve come to conclude, represent a huge waste of taxpayer resources.
While I was confined inside the fences of a medium-security prison, I worked my way through graduate school at Hofstra University. My studies focused on the American prison system and the people it held. Through my coursework, I had the privilege of interviewing Warden Dennis Luther on three separate occasions. At the time, Warden Luther had been a warden for more than 20 years, longer than any other warden in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I asked Warden Luther what he would change if he had the authority to influence the national prison policy.
“I would close all minimum-security prison camps,” Warden Luther told me. “Prison camps waste taxpayer dollars. Anyone classified with minimum-security status has a record that indicates he is not a threat to society. Such prisoners should pay their debt to society in ways that would allow them to work and pay taxes.”
When Warden Luther gave me his answer, I was only seven years into my prison term. My experiences in confinement limited me to the strict controls of living inside high walls, fences, and locked steel gates. Administrators would not drop my security status to minimum and thus qualify me for camp placement until I advanced to within 10 years of my release date, which was not scheduled until 2013.
In 2004, when I transferred to the minimum-security camp in Florence, Colorado, I began to appreciate the wisdom of Warden Luther’s leadership more fully. No fences locked me inside the camp. Instead of structured boundaries, small signs indicated which areas were out of bounds, and prisoners observed those restrictions on their own honor. Anyone who wanted to walk away from the camp would not meet much in the way of physical obstructions.
After 18 months at Florence Camp, administrators transferred me to the minimum-security camp in Lompoc, California. I served two years in that camp, where a single officer presided over more than 350 minimum-security prisoners. Every day, more than 100 of those prisoners left the camp to participate in programs that placed them in direct community contact, without supervision, for several hours each day. While confined at Lompoc Camp, I was assigned to a job that required me to drive in a vehicle on a public road at nearly midnight every workday; staff members did not watch over me.
Since 2007, I’ve served time with more than 500 other minimum-security prisoners at Taft Camp, near Bakersfield, California. This camp is like an oasis in the desert. We have lush lawns, clean and roomy living quarters, excellent meals, and courteous staff watching over us. Yet the boundaries are open. Clearly, administrators do not consider the prisoners at Taft Camp as posing any threat to society, as nothing but a prisoner’s sense of honor keeps him from walking away.
With more than five years of being classified as a minimum-security inmate and living in camps, I now know what Warden Luther meant when he told me that camps wasted taxpayer resources. American citizens fund these institutions with more than $12,0000 per year for each camp prisoner. Locking them inside secure prisons costs several times as much.
I understand that the prison system serves a useful purpose in society. Yet over the past several decades, tough-on-crime rhetoric has given rise to powerful unions for correctional officers. Businesses that provide goods and services to the prison system rely on lobbyists to influence legislation. Together, the unions and lobbyists have bamboozled taxpayers into accepting billions of dollars in costs to perpetuate this system that churns out failure.
The time for prison reform is now. I may have been incarcerated since 1987, yet I’ve educated myself and I follow the news. Our country is in a financial crisis. Citizens should demand more effective use of American resources.
If administrators classify individuals as requiring security, then those individuals ought to serve their sentences in work-release, or study programs that will allow them to prepare for law-abiding and contributory lives. They should earn their own keep. They should have opportunities to support their family responsibilities. They should not enjoy a free ride on the taxpayer, as I have done since administrators transferred me to these open boundaries of minimum-security camp. We need prison reform now.