Prison Reforms Should Include Incentives for Prisoners to Earn Freedom

By · Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Congress made several findings in its publication of the Second Chance Act. One finding indicated that American jails and prisons release 650,000 felons each year into American communities. Of those people who re-enter society from places of confinement, more than six in ten will return to confinement for one reason or another. That means 400,000 former prisoners fail upon release each year. I would call that a failure for a system that purports to call itself corrections.

I’ve been a prisoner since 1987. Despite not having a history of violence or prior incarceration, the mandatory-minimum sentence for a non-violent drug conviction has me scheduled to remain locked in prison for 27 years. I’m thankful to be in my 22nd year of this sentence.

During the time I’ve been in prison, I’ve made a study of adjustment patterns. I’ve published extensively about my lessons from living in the midst of thousands of prisoners. Many return to confinement because they lack the skills, resources, and values necessary to function in a law abiding society. Lengthy sentences have conditioned men to live in prison while simultaneously conditioning them to fail in society.

We need prison reforms that will lower recidivism rates and make society safer. I am convinced that the use of incentives would motivate many more prisoners to pursue positive adjustment patterns. The manner in which administrators manage prisons today results in apathy and further alienation among prisoners from society. Prisoners perceive obstacles and discouragement from policies that dehumanize in their total focus on preservation of the institution. Prison reforms ought to focus on lowering recidivism rates and preparing offenders for successful re-entry.

Rather than extinguishing hope, and leading prisoners to believe that regardless of what they do, they cannot reconcile with society or change or improve their circumstances, prison policies ought to encourage offenders to work toward graduated increases in freedom. By working toward clearly identifiable and measurable goals that will prepare them for success upon release, prisoners ought to earn meaningful incentives.

Prison reforms that include meaningful incentives would yield more positive adjustments in prison. They would lower the proliferation of gangs. They would make prison communities less volatile and less costly to operate. They would ensure that more offenders re-enter society with the skills, resources, and values necessary to function as law-abiding citizens. Prison reforms would lower recidivism rates and make society safer.

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