Top Ten Prison Reform Goals, Article 3: Prison Reforms Should Encourage Prisoners to Build Supportive Success Networks

By · Saturday, December 27th, 2008

Prison administrators like to hang signs and posters promoting success platitudes. Reach For The Stars! Be Persistent! Never Give Up!

The motivational signs might fool those in groups that tour institutions into believing that administrators make authentic efforts to prepare offenders for successful re-entry into society. Those locked in prisons, on the other hand, recognize the huge disconnect between the smiley face slogans and the realities of prison life.

As a long-term prisoner, one reform that I know would work wonders in lowering recidivism rates would be to replace the cliches and trite expressions with policy changes. Among others, I’d welcome reforms that encourage rather than discourage prisoner efforts to build supportive success networks. Such fundamental changes would make society safer by lowering the number of prisoners who fail upon release; they also would reduce the financial costs associated with operating a prison system that churns out so much failure.

Taxpayers who fund these failure factories might be surprised to know that prison administrators support policies that effectively penalize prisoners who maintain strong family and community ties. We see such an example in the allocation of halfway house eligibility times.

In the recently signed legislation known as The Second Chance Act of 2007, Congress authorized prison administrators to grant inmates the privilege of serving up to the final 12 months of their sentences in a halfway house. While serving time in the halfway house, the prisoner is supposed to re-acclimate himself to society. He must find suitable employment and pay the costs of his confinement by surrendering 25 percent of his gross pay to the halfway house administrator.

The time in the halfway house would provide the federal prisoner with a head start at living a law-abiding life. While serving the final months of his confinement, he would have an opportunity to build a modest savings account and purchase the staples he will need to adjust as an independent citizen.

Despite the 12 months of halfway house time Congress authorized, administrative policies under the current Bureau of Prisons Director place a practical limit of six months halfway house eligibility. The real irony is that the harder an inmate has worked to maintain strong family and community ties, the less halfway house time administrators will grant him. Such policies thwart Congressional intent of helping inmates transition into law-abiding lives and discourage inmates from working to build supportive success networks.

The ridiculous halfway house eligibility policy represents just one example of the way prison administrators discourage inmates from building networks that can help them succeed upon release. We see the same patterns in visiting and telephone policies. Current visitation policies prohibit inmates from visiting with people they did not know prior to their current term of confinement. Only the warden has the authority to override such policies, but as a matter of practice, wardens refuse to grant exceptions to the policy.

I have been incarcerated for longer than 21 years. I was in my early 20s when my period of incarceration began, and during those troubling years of my life, I was trafficking in cocaine. I no longer have relationships with the people I knew then. Yet during the many years of my imprisonment, I have worked hard to educate myself and reconcile with society. Those efforts have brought many mentors into my life whom I did not know prior to my imprisonment. Those mentors are community leaders with impeccable, unassailable records of achievement. They correspond with me and guide my preparations to overcome the obstacles I will confront after a quarter century in prison. Yet because of my not having had a relationship with them that preceded my confinement, wardens in two institutions have denied them access to visit me. We need prison reforms that will encourage prisoners to build supportive success networks.

Telephone policies, too, thwart inmate efforts to build and nurture strong community ties. Prior to the election of President George W. Bush, and his appointment of John Ashcroft as the Attorney General, inmates were not limited to the number of minutes they could talk on the telephone. Officers monitored all prisoner telephone calls, of course, but inmates could keep ties with family and friends by talking on the phone without limit. Yet under the more punitive policies that followed Mr. Ashcroft’s appointment, inmates faced limits that restricted them to an average of fewer than 10 minutes of daily telephone access. We need prison reforms that will reverse such policies that block prisoners from nurturing family and community ties.

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