Top Ten Prison Reform Goals, Article 1: Prison Reforms Should Influence Positive Attitudes

By · Thursday, December 25th, 2008

To succeed, prison reforms must begin by changing prisoner attitudes. After more than 21 years of thriving through prisons of every security level, I am well aware of the attitude necessary for a successful prison adjustment. I also know the changes administrators must make to reverse the costly and troubling trend of high recidivism rates.

What does society expect of its prison system? As in any venture, leaders must define success before they can achieve it. If taxpayers want prisons to warehouse and isolate offenders from society for the duration of their sentences, then prisons succeed brilliantly. Costs and consequences accompany such myopic goals, however.

Our nation now locks more than 2.3 million prisoners inside boundaries. The lobbyists representing the powerful unions and businesses that serve the prison industry welcome the surging population levels. By confining more people for longer terms, legislators must allocate higher budgets to fund the bloated prison system. Congress found that between 1982 and 2002, taxpayer expenditures on corrections increased from $9 billion to $60 billion.

The escalating financial costs, although troubling in and of themselves, fail to reflect the truly devastating consequences that flow from our packed prisons. What about the human costs? Decimating hope for millions of Americans has long-term consequences on our society. Just as the abominable practice of slavery caused systemic problems for generations of Americans, long-term confinement contaminates many more lives than those of the prisoners themselves. Children and family members of each prisoner suffer as well. Sundry costs and consequences accumulate when society’s institutions extinguish hope.

If taxpayers want prisons that do more than perpetuate cycles of failure, then prison reforms ought to require administrators to shape and influence prisoner attitudes. The task should not prove so daunting. After all, prisons are total institutions. Those who preside over the prison provide the basic needs for each prisoner, including shelter, clothing, and food. With complete discretion to create total infrastructures that determine how each prisoner spends each hour of his day, administrators simultaneously influence perceptions, values, and attitudes.

When administrators implement policies that fail to provide mechanisms for prisoners to distinguish themselves in positive ways, administrators invite rebelliousness. I saw repeated examples during the many years I served in high-security penitentiaries. Prisoners who served sentences that would keep them locked inside walls for decades did not see the value in preparing for the challenges they would confront upon release. They adjusted to the rigid, oppressive, control-obsessed atmosphere that administrators established. Instead of conditioning prisoners to learn how to think or communicate, the penitentiaries where I served time, conditioned prisoners to learn how to hate and use a knife.

Human beings respond better to the promise of incentives than they respond to the threat of further punishments and controls. This fact applies to prison populations as well as it does to any other segment of society. If taxpayers want more prisoners to prepare for law-abiding, contributing lives upon release, then they ought to support prison reforms that will encourage prisoners to work toward earning gradual increases in freedom.

By offering those in prison a clear path to redemption and reconciliation with society, prison reforms can improve prisoner attitudes. The concept of corrections could have real meaning with such prison reforms. The shift in focus might prove an anathema to the lobbyists, unions, businesses, and other groups that thrive on institutions that perpetuate a permanent underclass, yet prison reforms can bring the promise of an enlightened America, where the virtues of hope and redemption extend to all.

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