Speech on Second Chance Act

By · Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

I delivered this speech from memory to a large audience at a Toastmasters Group meeting at Taft Camp on March 31, 2008 to share my understanding of the Second Chance Act.

Good morning Toastmasters and guests. Thank you for the honor of your attendance and attention.

I want everyone in this room to know that I stand here with an immense amount of optimism, and I am convinced that my good spirits come with a sound basis in reality. As most of you know, on Tuesday, March 11, the United States Senate passed The Second Chance Act of 2007. Members of the House of Representatives passed that same legislation late last year. According to a March 12 report from the Wall Street Journal, the Bill will be sent to President Bush for signature. The process has thus begun to make the Second Chance Act law.

Many people here at Taft Camp have questioned me on whether I think this legislation will change anything within the federal prison system. I do.
Others have expressed pessimism, believing that administrators will drag their feet in implementing changes, and that in the end, all policies will remain the same. Although I can understand and appreciate such cynicism, my experience compels me to respectfully disagree.

To explain the position that I am taking, I want to discuss this legislation from a historical perspective. Then I will provide details that Congress has published with the Act, and there are many. Based on those details, I have taken the initiative to offer suggestions for administrators both at this institution and within the BOP, and I will share those suggestions with you.

As I said, I want to begin from a historical perspective. What I would like to do is take you all back to 1989. Back then, I don’t expect that anyone in this room—other than me—was thinking about the criminal justice system. Certainly none of you thought that the possibility of serving time in prison would have been a complication you would have to confront.

Yet in 1989, I was already in my second year of confinement. Back then I was confined inside the high walls of the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. You may be surprised to learn that many of the prisoners in high security paid close attention to politics. The reason, of course, was that political leaders influenced the policies that governed the lives of people in prison.

As you may remember, George Herbert Walker Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in the 1988 Presidential election; the first Bush took office from Ronald Reagan in 1989. The time that I want to remind you about was President Bush’s first address to the nation from the Oval office. Hundreds of prisoners sat inside the second-floor auditorium at USP Atlanta to watch President Bush’s televised discussion.

The purpose of President Bush’s speech was to warn Americans of the biggest threat facing America. He held up a bag of cocaine and said that the drugs he was holding had been purchased just a few blocks away from the White House. President Bush warned that it wasn’t only drugs that was threatening America, but an entire crime wave that threatened every citizen. He urged Congress to get tough on crime. Congress responded.

There is a long history of hysteria influencing legislation in this country and around the world. As recently as two weeks ago, I read an article in the USA Today newspaper indicating that in 1954, our nation faced a hysteria over comic books. Leaders in society were convinced that comic books threatened the values of our country; they were turning children into incorrigible juvenile delinquents. Legislators held hearings and put pressure on comic book artists and publishers. Soon there were rules that prohibited comic books from depicting law enforcement, courts, or any part of the establishment in a demeaning way. That may seem crazy in today’s world of violent video games and other content that has become so much a part of our society. Yet history shows that legislation and acceptance follows leadership. People have a tendency to act without thinking when leaders ask.

Look back further in world history. Some people in this room may be familiar with the Grand Inquisition, which resulted in tens of thousands losing their lives through hideous torture because those in power felt challenged by contrary beliefs. We can look at Salem witch trials that occurred much earlier in our country. Why? Because leaders felt threatened and needed a cause to unite the people, and sometimes leaders rely on fear and hatred to unite.

When President Bush held up that bag of cocaine in the Oval office for all Americans to see, he ignited a panic across our great land. Suddenly, Americans feared the great crime wave. Congress responded by passing legislation that showed how tough those leaders were on crime. The new laws did not only have an influence on people convicted of drug offenses. Every person in prison suffered.

Legislation that passed in 1984 had already abolished parole and decimated opportunities to earn good time. President Bush’s speech, however, persuaded Congress to do more. The Congress passed legislation that would prohibit prisoners from funding college educations with Pell grants. It took away funding programs to assist people upon release. The nation became much more punitive. No matter how tough legislators made laws and the conditions of confinement, American citizens were hungry for more.

The mood of the country then was somber, at least as related to those who had been convicted of breaking laws. Administrators of these prisons imposed the will of the people. No one wanted to risk being labeled “soft on crime” by arguing that people in prison needed programs to emerge successfully. The lust was for punishment, punishment, punishment. Society wanted its pound of flesh.

No one questioned what the costs of this lust for punishment would be, neither in human nor in financial terms. People did not ask whether the draconian approach to criminal justice was right. Legislators had passed the laws, and that settled all discussion on the matter.

Of course our country has a history of accepting laws, regardless of whether those laws are right. Everyone in this room knows that at one time our laws approved slavery as being right. In fact, our country’s original Constitution held that some people only counted as three-fifths of a human being. Yet many citizens were loathe to question or change such deplorable positions.

Other bad laws included the Alien and Sedition Act that President John Adams passed to quell dissent. Under those laws, anyone who expressed dissent from government leadership was vulnerable to prosecution and time in prison. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or other right-wing fanatics would not have been able to avoid the penitentiary if those laws remained on our books.

At various times in our history, Congress had passed laws that made it a crime to drink alcohol, or for women to vote. Those laws, I remind you, were rooted in public hysteria that was once launched by leadership. Voters accepted them without question. Such was the same response to George Bush’s call for tougher rather than smarter approaches to crime.

Well, gentlemen, we are no longer in 1989. America’s citizens are no longer willing to accept those simple-minded responses to criminal justice. In fact, some of America’s most influential scholars and leaders began calling for change a few years ago. In 2003, at a conference before the American Bar Association, Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court gave a keynote address on the ineffective reliance on our nation’s prison system. He said that our resources were being misspent, our punishments were too severe, and that our sentences were too long.

In 2004, during his State of the Union speech, the current President Bush spoke about the need for legislation that would help released offenders re-enter society. A wave of studies were then published that urged legislators to change the way our system operated.

Two of the most recent studies that have been widely cited include the one titled Unlocking America, and another known as The Pew Report. Both of those studies were presented by some of America’s leading penologists. Some statistics that I extricated from those reports follow:

The Pew Report held that 1 in every 53 people in their 20s was behind bars. That same report held that 1 in every 36 Hispanic men over 18 was incarcerated; for black men that number climbed to 1 in every 15. Between the ages of 20 to 34, 1 in every 9 black men was in prison. Overall, 1 in every 99 U.S. adults was incarcerated. These numbers come at an extraordinary cost. In Oregon, for example, 11 cents of every dollar in the state’s general fund is spent on corrections. While prison funds have escalated, American investment in education has not kept pace. In fact, our nation’s lust to punish over the past 30 years has boosted budgets on prison spending far beyond that of any other programs.

Some may ask why, or how this spending grew so out of control. As I mentioned at the beginning of this speech, my observations suggest that tougher punishments had roots in claims from our leadership that America faced a crime wave. By holding up that bag of cocaine in the Oval office, and using his awesome influence to tell Americans that we needed to toughen up on crime, President Bush launched the War-on-Crime lobby. They argued for harsh mandatory punishments to incapacitate, deter, and punish. Broadcasters recognized that reporting on crime drew large audiences, and so crime reports led the news. Soon contractors and suppliers of these prisons began arguing for more government spending to fund the prison boom. Our nation’s leadership had spread misconceptions that drove a perfect storm for the imprisonment binge.

That growth in our prison system, however, came with consequences. People in prison couldn’t support their children. Prisons alienated offenders from their communities. Those who returned to society struggled to overcome the stigma of incarceration. Tough treatment resulted in a cycle of recidivism.

America is now taking notice of the ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system. Every day, media reports are showing that the approach of the past 20 years has cost too much, in terms of both financial dollars and human lives. The hysteria to confine is dead. Americans are now calling for a smarter approach to the criminal justice system, and the Second Chance Act of 2007 represents the first Bill of prison and sentence reform; I expect that we will see many more in the years to come.

From a personal perspective, I can tell you all that this is a huge change. As I have published in the various books that I have written, prison administrators have told me in the past that they had no interest in steps I was taking to prepare for a law-abiding life upon release. Their only concern was the security of the institution. This historic legislation, however, will change that mission. Now, Congress is demanding that prison administrators prepare offenders for re-entry. I am optimistic because Congress has published some categorical statements with this Act. In fact, the stated purpose of the Act is to “Break the cycle of recidivism.”

Further, the Act proposes “to rebuild ties between offenders and their families, while offenders are incarcerated… to promote stable families and communities.” To me, this means huge changes are to come.

From a political perspective, I also am encouraged by the promising candidacy of Barack Obama. My hopes are that he will win the White House, as I am convinced that he offers the most hope for a new style of leadership. With Obama, the chances for prison reform increase exponentially. In a speech he delivered in Philadelphia, Senator Obama spoke about the importance of prison ministries. He spoke about young men languishing in our prisons without hope or prospects for the future. He spoke about ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system. That is the type of leadership I want to govern our country, and I am convinced that Obama will do more to unite this nation than any President since Lincoln.

Those are the reasons that I stand before you with optimism today. Although the Second Chance Act of 2007 may not provide us with a get-out-of-jail-free card, or give us $200 when we pass “Go,” it is a start in the direction toward real prison reform. That gives me hope.

Personally, I am nearly finished with my sentence. But after 21 years in prison, I still feel a connection with every other man in confinement. I may not receive much benefit from the prison reform that I am predicting, but I feel as if I am brother with each of you. I know the struggles of living in separation from those I love. I know the struggles of preparing for meaningful lives. Yet I feel a great sense of hope that the people who are beginning long sentences today will see significant change within the next three years.

With the Second Chance Act, some of the immediate benefits include more access to halfway house, and the possibility of release to home confinement for elderly offenders. More important to me, however, was the expanded duties of prison administrators. Congress has recognized the importance of family ties. Specifically, the Act found evidence to suggest that inmates who are connected to their children and families were more likely to avoid incidents, and that released prisoners cited family support as the most important factors in helping them stay out of prison. Because Congress also found that families were an often underutilized resource in the re-entry process, my hopes are that administrators will institute more opportunities for those of us in prison to nurture closer family and community ties. In an effort to help administrators understand how they could expand programs to implement the will of Congress, I offered suggestions to the warden at Taft Camp and to administrators in Washington. To nurture closer family ties, I wrote, administrators ought to expand access to visiting. They should eliminate the 300-minute telephone restriction, or in the alternative, they should encourage inmates to earn supplemental phone and visiting privileges through good behavior and program participation. They should introduce the inmate e-mail program to all prisons. Inmates ought to earn access to furloughs through objective means, and eligible inmates ought to have the ability to attend academic or vocational programs on campus at local colleges. Further, inmates ought to be able to sit on a guidance committee through which they can make suggestions to administrators that would help inmates preserve and nurture community ties.

Rather than continuing to govern prisons in a manner that conditioned inmates to fail upon release, I am optimistic that the Second Chance Act of 2007 will push administrators to implement helpful programs. In fact, the legislation requires the Director of the Bureau of Prisons to report to Congress regularly; he must describe steps he is taking to reduce recidivism. That is an obligation that has not existed before, and it bodes well for every individual serving time in America. That is my take on this historic legislation. It is the reason that I am so optimistic for additional legislation on prison reform in years to come.

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