Quit Rewarding Failure

By · Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

As I listened to the NPR broadcast at 5:00 AM this morning, I heard that many Americans were livid that executives at AIG would be splitting a bonus pool of $160 million. Executives at AIG had led a failed business model that has contributed to our global economic crisis. Taxpayer funds have been used to bail out AIG. Citizens were rightfully angered that the very executives who orchestrated failure would receive bonus money in spite of their poor performance. Our American sense of fairness dictated that we should reserve bonuses for excellence.

Our prison system, however, operates a little like AIG. The more failure this system seems to generate, the more money taxpayers seem to throw at it. In the Second Chance Act, Congress found that our prison system costs taxpayers $59 billion each year to operate. The Pew Report shows that expenditures on prisons have taken more than ten percent of many state budgets. Prison spending has driven the great state of California to the brink of bankruptcy. Despite the high expenditures, recidivism exceeds 60 percent.

Helena Garcia is a criminal justice student who is understandably perplexed by the prison problem. She asked my opinion on why more prisoners didn’t follow the example I tried to set of taking advantage of educational opportunities. The reasons are obvious to me as a long-term prisoner, though I understand why they would be opaque to outside observers.

Thriving through prison required an individual to master self-discipline and will. Despite a system that likes to call itself “corrections,” it seems to perpetuate failure. Rather than encouraging excellence, the management focuses on preserving the sanctity of the institution. The prison takes precedence over the individual. That means administrators implement controls that stifle creativity, motivation, and will instead of offering incentives to inspire personal growth.

Prisoners do not “earn” good time, contrary to public opinion. Administrators award good time automatically to prisoners who avoid disciplinary infractions. That means an individual who wastes years playing table games and watching television receives the same credit as the individual who disciplines himself to prepare for success upon release. Prisoners cannot “earn” access to programs that will lower recidivism. Many sanctions and controls exist to punish and discipline, but the system of corrections does not offer mechanisms to reward excellence. Recidivism rates and high prison operating costs show the consequences of this fundamentally flawed policy. Like the AIG executives, however, those who lobby for the prison machine want more taxpayer funds to expand the ridiculous system.

The concept of punishment is inconsistent with our enlightened society. The same may be said for theories about “genetic predispositions” to crime. Rather than focusing on punishment, or vengeance, American citizens ought to demand leadership. Prisons should exist to make society safer, and the data suggests that a focus on oppressive controls, or punishment, fail to reach this goal.

Racists might argue that blacks and Hispanics have a “genetic predisposition” to crime. After all, they constitute a disproportionate representation within our prison system. John Locke was a philosopher who argued that we as human beings come into the world with a blank slate, and our exposure to society made impressions upon us that conditioned our behavior. Our behavior was not “predisposed” by our own genetic makeup, but rather by the influences of our surroundings. Our new President was influenced by a mother who valued education and leadership; many of the prisoners with whom I served time were influenced by gang members and hopelessness.

It is easy to continue locking people in cages. We have seen the results of this emphasis on punishment. Leadership requires a new approach. That’s why I call for prison reform that would make society safer and lower recidivism.

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