The Poor Get Prison, The Rich Get Pardoned

By · Monday, February 9th, 2009

David Muniz serves a prison term with me at Taft Camp. He is a 28-year-old father of two who is serving a sentence of 11 years. During the three years that David has served thus far, he has earned his GED and he has begun accumulating college credits that will lead to his associate’s degree from Taft Community College.

I watch David’s progress closely because we share a cubicle. Every day I work with him, as I have hopes of helping David prepare for a law-abiding and productive life upon release. The struggle challenges David, however, as he lives without much in the way of hope for a better life. In the article My Roommate at Taft Camp, I describe what I learned about David.

Essentially, David’s longing for his family challenges his adjustment. Administrative policies aggravate the separation because they limit David’s access to telephone calls and visits. His young children cry to talk with him, yet prison rules prohibit David from talking for more than an average of 10 minutes per day. During the Christmas season, the entire family suffers.

Every day, David sits on the edge of his steel rack and flips through a photo album with pictures of his beloved wife and children. For the first two years of his sentence, administrators denied David permission to marry the mother of his children, but after filing administrative grievances, David overcame the objections of prison administrators at Taft Camp and finally was able to marry Gabriella. Ironically, the staff members had been expressly dissuading David from marrying because they said he had too much time remaining to serve.

The pain for David runs deep, however. Like millions of ordinary Americans, David’s family has been hit especially hard by the country’s financial crisis. The family home is nearing foreclosure status, and Gabriella labors in a factory job that pays just above minimum wage; the job does not offer much in the way of security. David is distraught with worry, as he knows his imprisonment precludes him from contributing financially to the welfare of his family.>

“The best thing you can do for your family,” I tell David, “is to educate yourself. You must keep steady with these efforts to earn your college degree. That is the only way that you’ll be able to break the cycle of poverty that has put your family through struggle for so long.”

“I’m working, jefe,” as David referred to me. “Sometimes it’s too hard, though. Nothing’s really going to change. No one is going to care about whether I get educated or not. I still got to do all these years in prison.”

David feels discouraged because administrators do not recognize the significant efforts he is making to change his life. Considering from the disadvantaged background from which David and his family comes, the growth he has made thus far has been nothing short of remarkable. Yet to the profession of so-called corrections, David’s efforts do not mean a thing. All that matters to the system that holds David is the turning of calendar pages, that he serves the 11 year sentence his judge imposed.

David’s case is a prime example of what our prison system locks in cages. He is a young man of Hispanic heritage who comes from systemic poverty. Neither of his parents were highly educated, and as such, they did not impress upon David the importance of learning. In his teenage years he dropped out of school and worked a series of dead-end jobs until seemingly better opportunities came along as a low-level drug trafficker. DEA agents busted him, and without resources to access top-level legal advice, David pleaded guilty and he has been locked inside prison boundaries ever since.

What is remarkable about David, however, is the commitment he makes to learn. For him, the hurdles are high, as he has had to work exceptionally hard to reach levels of proficiency in basic reading and math and writing. He devotes hours every day. David is giving everything he has to educate himself, although the payoff for his efforts will not come for many, many years, until he concludes his prison term.

Like tens of thousands of American prisoners, David and his family suffer in significant ways because of his imprisonment. Unlike powerful criminals, like Scooter Libby, David did not come from a life of power and privilege. He did not have credentials from the world’s best universities. Certainly, David did not know people of influence and power. Prior to his incarceration, David did not even have a single friend or role model who was not from the same disadvantaged background that he had known for his entire life.

Unlike David, however, the rich and powerful do not need to suffer the indignities of lengthy prison terms. While the poor languish in prison, President Bush said that the privileged like his friend Scooter Libby suffer enough when a jury finds them guilty. Our prison system is one of corruption. I am hoping for change.

Perhaps with the leadership of President Barack Obama, we will see prison reforms that eliminate the harsh penalties that nonviolent drug offenders serve. We also need prison reforms that will offer incentives to nonviolent offenders like David Muniz who work so hard to redeem themselves and earn their way to freedom.

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6 Responses to “The Poor Get Prison, The Rich Get Pardoned”

  1. Brandon R. says:

    Hello Michael,
    As I read your article I wanted to ask, do criminals who try to reform in prison actually succeed and be law abiding citizens? Do you know of any?
    I ask the question because it seems as though prisoners are more likely to reoffend. I believe those who serve a considerable amount of time use education as a tool to show the adminstrators they’re changing or changed. Why does it take prison or jail time to show inmates education is the essential tool to have when your outside the joint and not inside?
    On the upside I do believe prisons need a reform on harsher penalities for nonviolent drug offenders as they overcrowd our jail systems. Do you believe societies will accept such radical move by the government?
    A Dr. Torres Student,

  2. Hi Brandon,
    Thanks for writing. I’ve mailed your comments/questions to Michael and will post his reply to you as soon as I receive it back.
    Carole Santos

  3. Carole Santos says:

    Hi Brandon,

    Here is Michael’s response to your question:

    Best wishes,

  4. Maria Perez says:

    Hello Mr. Mrs. Santos. My name is Maria Perez. I am a student of Dr. Torres in the corrections class he teaches at Cal State Long Beach. I would like to ask a few questions about the article above.


    1. Why did you give this article that title?
    2. Why do you believe that?
    3. Do you believe that you felt very motivated to help Mr. David Muniz because you could almost see yourself in his position, when you were his age?
    4. Was it the fact that he was approximately the same age you were when you got arrested for your crime and that it was for a somewhat similar crime?
    5. If not, what did inspire you to help him?

    Thank you.

  5. Chad Swanson says:

    Hello Mr Santos, I am a student of Dr. Torres and have a few questions for you. First off, I wanted to know if you knew of any people who received their degrees while incarcerated and if they were succesful in changing their lives. Second, I noticed that you said that your friend David Munoz was never encouraged to receive an education because his family was not very well educated themselves. Don’t you think then, that this lengthy prison term is actually a blessing since it gives him the opportunity to get a degree which will give him the opportunity to break the cycle that claimed him before. And also, if he does receive the degree do you believe the prison term will have been justified since he will have been rehabilitated?And even if he does not earn a degree I think its safe to say that when he is released he will do all that he can to stress to his family and anyone else who will listen the importance of an eduaction which could also be a justification for, and a benefit of such a long sentence. I would like to say that i understand where you are coming from in regards to your view on the prison terms being too lengthy for non-violent drug offenders but i do not. I do not mean to offend you in anyway and apologize if i do so, but in my eyes the lengthy prison term is what has given you this opportunity to change your life and has given you the drive that you will need to suceed when you get out. If the terms for non-violent drug offenders were shortened I don’t beleive that as many people would “see the light,” change their ways and try to go straight. Even if those who appeared to have changed were let out early I beleive that it would still decrease the amount people who would be rehabilitated by the long sentancing, and people would just fake that they have changed so they could get out quicker. What are your thoughts?

    Thank you for your time and i look forward to reading your reply.

    • Dear Chad:

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments and I welcome this opportunity to respond. To answer your first question, I’ve known several prisoners who earned two-year degrees and I’ve known fewer than a dozen who earned four-year degrees. Although I’m sure there are some, I’ve not known any other prisoners who earned graduate degrees. Statistics on education in prison, however, clearly show that prisoners who earn academic credentials are far more likely to succeed upon release.

      It is to that fact of the relationship between success upon release and education that I base my responses to your subsequent questions. From my perspective, taxpayers ought to have the goal of a successful prison system. Success would imply a system that promotes respect for the law and prepares more offenders to emerge from the prison system as law-abiding citizens.

      Although education certainly succeeds better than oppressive conditions in reforming prisoners, few prisoners commit themselves wholeheartedly to education. As a matter of public policy, that should concern our leaders and our citizens. We want our country’s institutions to be effective. The high recidivism rates show that we need improvements, and I am convinced that prison reforms that include incentives can offer promise.

      I do not dispute that long sentences can have a place in the system. Yet leaders ought to augment the system with mechanisms that encourage prisoners to earn freedom through merit. I don’t mean overnight. But if more prisoners could comprehend that a sustained and measurable personal investment in education could advance his release date, then more prisoners would commit to positive adjustments. It is the absence of hope that is responsible for such a paucity of prisoners who commit to education.

      With more prisoners working to earn freedom, society wins through lower recidivism rates, fewer gang problems, lower prison operating costs, and safer communities. That’s my take, and I hope it helps your understanding of my perspective. I aspire to influence a more effective prison system, not an easier prison system. I am convinced incentives would help.

      Best wishes,
      Michael Santos