Prison Reform Like Foreign Policy Reform

By · Sunday, March 8th, 2009

As a prisoner in the midst of my 22nd year in continuous confinement, I have had a first-hand look at this system. I’ve served virtually my entire adult life within prison boundaries of every security level. This perspective has given me unique opportunities and experiences from which I have learned. They convince me that prisons fail to prepare offenders for successful re-entry because they extinguish hope. Reforms to both legislative and administrative policies could improve the system that society calls corrections.

When I began serving my prison term, in 1987, I was 23-years-old. Although I did not have a history of violence or previous incarceration, my judge imposed a 45-year sentence. With the length of confinement ahead, administrators locked me inside the walls of a high-security federal penitentiary. As sentencing structures then stood, the term translated into possible release 25 years later, in 2013, provided that I did not lose good-time credits through disciplinary actions.

What did our society expect to benefit through the imposition of such a term? Would the severity of the sentence deter consenting adults from engaging in cocaine transactions? Would it appropriately punish the wrong and illegal behavior of my early 20s? Would isolating me from society during my 20s, 30s, and 40s advance the principles of justice? Did the leaders expect rehabilitation would follow my confinement for multiple decades in a high-security penitentiary?

Our society now confines more than 2.3 million people. The costs to fund this massive system of human warehousing exceeds $60 billion each year. Taxpayers read of inadequate resources to invest in educational programs and teachers, yet budgets to maintain the massive prison system thrive year after year. With recidivism rates that exceed 60 percent, however, citizens ought to question and doubt the wisdom of this public policy. Any objective metric would validate the need for prison reform.

In the book Change We Can Believe In, I read many platform positions of President Barack Obama. Under an Obama administration, the book said, foreign policy would make use of strategies that included incentives to induce behavior from people in failed states. The example to which I refer suggested increasing foreign aid to $3 billion in Afghanistan. Those funds would encourage farmers to grow crops other than those used to make opium and heroin for the Taliban to distribute.

Prison reform ought to duplicate this wise strategy of using incentives to induce positive behavior. With millions incarcerated and high recidivism rates, prisons represent a failed state within our own borders. Just as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other failed states, when circumstances extinguish hope among citizens, some people adjust in ways that threaten stability.

Without hope, or clearly-defined paths to good citizenship, high recidivism validates the reality that many prisoners neglect to prepare for the challenges that are certain to follow release. Instead, they focus on the perceived immediate needs of living in prison. With decades to serve, and without available mechanisms through which they can distinguish themselves in positive ways, few prisoners sustain the necessary commitment to emerge with skills and resources that translate into success upon release. Reforms to the failed state of American prisons would change such troubling and costly realities.

Legislators and administrators ought to offer incentives that would encourage prisoners to work toward reconciling with society. Judges may impose sentences that could result in the locking of offenders inside boundaries for years or decades at a time. Legislators and administrators ought to support policies that would induce prisoners to work toward redemption through merit. Such change would represent an advancement in our enlightened society. Incentives would empower our citizens, replacing the failed policies of vengeance with the promising policies of hope. Prison reforms ought to include an objective-path through which offenders could earn their way to freedom.

Making such a shift in strategy through effective prison reforms would reflect American values of hope and promise. Incentives would induce positive adjustment patterns in America’s prison population, thus making society safer through lower recidivism rates. As a long term prisoner, that is change I could believe in.

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One Response to “Prison Reform Like Foreign Policy Reform”

  1. Helena Garcia says:

    Mr. Santos:

    I am a student in Dr. Torres’ Corrections class at CSULB and I wanted to ask you a couple questions:

    If you were able to follow a straight path why can’t other prisoners do the same?

    It seems to be the case that there are already programs to prevent recidivism: good time and educational programs like those that you have taken advantage of. Why aren’t they being used to their full potential by all inmates?

    I am under the impression that you believe in treatment of the offender instead of straight punishment. What about those that do not have a cure? For example, those that are genetically predisposed to commit crime, what is your solution for that kind of offender?

    Thank You,

    Helena Garcia