Reality TV Can Advance Prison Reform

By · Sunday, June 28th, 2009

The schedule that I keep as a prisoner does not leave room for television, but that doesn’t mean I don’t read about television programming. Recently I’ve read several articles that describe America’s fascination with reality TV. One show receiving a lot of coverage is Jon and Kate Plus Eight, with reports showing that as many as 10 million viewers watch a single episode. Wow! That’s a lot of interest. Those numbers have me wondering whether an opportunity exists for a reality TV show that would dramatize the struggles prisoners face upon release.

The Pew Charitable Trust, a respected and widely-quoted research organization, released a study showing that 750,000 prisoners return to their communities each year. That amounts to more than 2,000 people every day. The Pew report goes on to show that of every three prisoners who return to society, two will encounter some form of confinement again within three years. That cycle of failure ought to concern every American citizen. Reality television could bring the attention necessary for meaningful prison reform.

A reality television program on released prisoners might help mainstream audiences understand why so many people fail upon release from confinement. From my perspective, biased though it may be, the answer is obvious. The system of corrections perpetuates cycles of failure. I’ll tell you how. In isolating offenders for years or decades at a time, prisoners lose ties to legitimate society while proximity strengthens their ties with others who have been convicted of crime. Besides influencing personal relationships, the prison experience extinguishes hope, and in so doing it conditions the values by which prisoners live. In other words, since many prisoners perceive that they’ve been cut off from legitimate opportunities to participate in society, they hustle and scheme through underground economies to make their way.

Once prisoners complete their sentences, they return to communities that, in many ways, reject them. The released prisoners lack financial resources to establish themselves. With prison records, few find employment opportunities that will allow them to earn sufficient incomes for shelter, clothing, and the basic necessities of life. The prison system seems a perfect design to foster high recidivism rates, and taxpayers suffer the consequences.

The Bureau of Prisons published costs for taxpayers to confine offenders in crowded facilities. It’s an average of nearly $26,000 per year for each prisoner. By contrast, keeping an offender on probation costs taxpayers less than $3,800 per year. A win-win solution, to me, calls for change.

Rather than continuing a system of long-term imprisonment that perpetuates failure, taxpayers ought to urge reforms that would encourage nonviolent prisoners to work toward earning the privilege to transition from confinement to community-based sanctions like parole. Such a change would influence more positive prison adjustments. Those types of adjustments would prepare more offenders to overcome the challenges they will confront upon release.

The prison machine has been successful in blocking the media from reporting on the day-to-day life of confinement. Although institutional policies may restrict cameras and journalists from reporting on prison life, reality television could profile the challenges released prisoners face. Such coverage might persuade American audiences that long-term imprisonment for nonviolent offenders is a bad public policy.

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