Prison Reform Requires Leaders Who Listen

By · Saturday, January 10th, 2009

As a long-term prisoner, I read extensively in an effort to prepare for the challenges that will follow my release. Primarily, I read nonfiction literature to advance my education. Besides books, I read news magazines to understand how our society has been evolving during the 21-plus years that I’ve been locked in various prisons.

One contemporary story that has been receiving a lot of coverage concerns the chancellor of public schools for the Washington, DC area. By any objective measure, the chancellor recognized that the DC school system was failing to educate its students. By failing the students, the school system also was failing society. As I followed the story, I admired the chancellor’s willingness to take bold steps to reform an educational system that failed to educate. We need that same type of leadership to reform our nation’s prison system. It is a system of corrections that fails to correct.

In an effort to advance her reforms, one magazine reported that the chancellor published her address. She invited residents to write her with comments about their experiences with the school system. A cynical high school student accepted the invitation. He wrote about his disappointments with the learning resources at his school, and described how he felt cheated because teachers expected him to learn computer applications without providing him with functional computers. Such inadequacies hindered the student’s ability to prepare for college or the work force.

The story reported that the chancellor felt pleased to have such inside information. She wanted the system to improve. Rather than dismissing a student’s perspective, she opened a correspondence and invited the student to apprise her of what was going on in the school. She wanted inside information on why so many students were failing.

If prison administrators want to serve American taxpayers and preside over a system that prepares offenders to emerge as law-abiding, contributing citizens, then they ought to follow the example set by the school chancellor in Washington, DC. Administrators must listen. The prison system needs leadership, not a bureaucracy that perpetuates failure.

Recidivism rates show that our prison system creates a cycle, with more than six of every ten prisoners returning to upon release. Prison reforms can change such dismal results. If legislators and administrators take the time to listen to the ways in which prison cultures and infrastructures condition failure, those leaders may institute appropriate changes that lower recidivism rates and make society safer.

Since my confinement began in 1987, I have worked hard and consistently to reconcile with society. By necessity, my work has kept me in the midst of thousands who stood locked in prisons alongside me. From them, as well as from my own observations and experiences, I have learned a great deal. Like the student who provided inside reporting for the chancellor of DC’s public school system, I offer personal narratives with hopes that legislators and administrators will consider meaningful prison reforms.

By changing some fundamental structures of the prison system, leaders can influence positive adjustment patterns. In so doing, they will lower recidivism rates and make society safer.

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One Response to “Prison Reform Requires Leaders Who Listen”

  1. Candyce Carlberg says:

    Hello Mr. Santos,

    I think that what you wrote about in this blog is very true and very pertinent to me as a (college) student at CSULB. Our society could sure use more of the chancellors from Washington DC. I do believe have a question about the reforms and sure that you are speaking of.

    Lets say that I was someone who had power within our society, someone who could make changes and get things done that need to get done. What exactly is the first step in doing that? Because people can talk and talk and talk about what should be done and what is right, but those people have to KNOW how and what to do in order to take that first step towards the goal(s). From reading several of your blogs as well as being about half way through your book “Inside”, prison life is completely different and not what the general public would typically think life is like behind bars.

    Being a Criminal Justice student it is interesting being involved and communicating with someone from prison who knows what it is like and who knows what kind of changes need to be done. As I continue to learn more and more about the correctional system from Dr. Torres, I get more and more interested in prisons, the people inside, and the solution to the reforms you speak about. What is it that I, just a 21 year old student, can do to help your, as well as many others, situation inside?? That is why I ask what the FIRST step in your reforms would be.

    I also read the blog about Edgar who should not be in prison, and it is very sad that our criminal justice system has come to this. You would think that judges and other officials would see his background and other great things he has done. Why is it that he got such a harsh punishment? Why is it that his PO did not do a very good pre-sentencing report and assist the judge in his strategy for punishing Edgar? Sorry kind of went off on a tangent!