Prison Reforms Should Reward Those Who Reach Goals

By · Friday, January 2nd, 2009

Editors from Time magazine met with President-elect Obama in early December. Among numerous other questions, the editors asked Mr. Obama how voters in the 2010 mid-term elections would know whether his administration was succeeding. I really liked his answer. He set benchmarks, or clearly-defined goals, and the President-elect invited voters to hold him accountable.

When people know exactly what others expect of them, they can choose to set plans in motion that will allow them to live up to expectations. Clearly, the President-elect intends to live up to people’s expectations. My belief is that he will exceed them. As a long-term prisoner, I would love to have similar opportunities.

I am a firm believer in the power of clearly-defined goals and accountability. Setting such goals, and inviting others to hold me accountable, has been central to my adjustment strategy of thriving through a lengthy prison term. I would like to changes that encourage rather than discourage such adjustments.

We need prison reforms that will inspire those who live within these barbed-wire boundaries to strive toward reconciliation with society. Instead of simply serving time, inmates ought to be preparing for law-abiding and contributing lives. Such reforms would make America safer by lowering recidivism rates, and they would empower offenders to reach their highest potential.

In today’s prison system, individual goals do not have much relevance. To phrase that better, goals have relevance to the individual, but not to prison administrators. The prison system does not distinguish an offender who spends his time loafing in front of a television from an offender who works every day to prepare himself for the challenges that will follow his release. As one high-ranking administrator told me, “We don’t care anything about what happens to you upon release. Our only concern is preservation of the institution.”

When society cares more about preserving institutions than enabling individuals, it degenerates into the cliche of the tail wagging the dog. Prison administrators and legislators ought to implement changes that reflect the importance of individual choices and accountability. They ought to create mechanisms that allow offenders to earn graduated levels of freedom through merit. By simply watching calendar pages turn, administrators fail to bring justice to society.

We need prison reforms that will measure justice by each individual’s sustained and successful efforts to reach clearly-defined goals. If an offender has earned his freedom, he should not be held longer at taxpayer expense simply because more calendar pages must turn.

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