Suggestions for New Prisoners

By · Thursday, March 20th, 2008

Now is a much better time to begin serving a prison sentence. That may sound ridiculous to the casual reader, the normal person who doesn’t believe there is ever a good time to begin a prison term. I am speaking relatively. The time is much better than 1987, when I began serving my sentence.

In 1987, our country was implementing much more punitive policies. More people were being locked into the system, and changes in good-time policies, along with the abolition of parole and longer sentences meant that fewer people were being released. New sentencing laws meant that offenders without histories of violence and who had been convicted of crimes against the public order with consenting adults could serve life terms. As a consequence of those changes, our prison population levels soared. After more than 20 years of such policies, we now incarcerate more than 1 in 100 Americans. Among minorities, the ratio is much higher. For black males between the ages of 18 and 34, the recently published Pew Report shows that 1 in 9 are incarcerated.

For the first time since my own term began, the media is publishing story after story about the absurdity and waste of these lengthy sentences. Change is coming, of that I am convinced. The Second Chance Act is only the beginning. If Obama wins the White House, I expect that prison reform will become a priority. By incarcerating so many offenders, many of whom have no history of violence, our country wastes incredible resources.

We should use our prison resources more wisely, and in years to come, I expect that we will. I am closing in on my release date, so I do not expect to benefit from these coming changes. Yet those who are beginning lengthy sentences in this new political climate can expect to see new opportunities to advance their release dates. Within three years, by 2011, I expect we will see significant reforms, perhaps even a return to parole. If not parole, then legislators may implement other opportunities for offenders to advance their release dates through merit.

Those who are coming into this system now ought to position themselves to receive the most benefit from these coming changes. They should refrain from behavior that can lead to disciplinary infractions, as prison records will play a huge role in qualifying for relief. Further, new prisoners should participate actively in every type of program that can further the argument that the individual is preparing for a law-abiding life upon release.

Besides earning every credential possible, I suggest that new prisoners keep a journal that documents progress. The tri-part strategy that has guided me through more than 20 years in prison required that I focus on educational development, building a strong network of support, and community contributions. That focus has worked for me, and I am convinced it can help incoming prisoners position themselves for the relief that ought to become available before 2011.

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