Top Ten Prison Reform Goals, Article 4: Prison Reforms Should Include Partnering Prisoners with Community Leaders and Mentors

By · Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Blinky and I were confined in the same housing unit when I began serving my term. He had been incarcerated for ten years and he had a set pattern for serving time that I found typical of the penitentiary. Every morning he left for work in the prison factory, where Blinky presided over an operation that boxed mattresses for shipping. Upon completion of his shift, Blinky settled into his cell with three other prisoners and they played cards while sipping hooch. The guards didn’t bother prisoners who drank as long as the drunks were not so flagrant. Blinky and his “brothers” weren’t causing any trouble, so guards left the clique alone. By lockdown each evening, Blinky was in his rack snoring away, ready to resume the routine the following morning.

After ten years of such an adjustment, Blinky was well acclimated to the penitentiary. He didn’t have any contacts outside, though he was well liked by both guards and prisoners inside. When we met, Blinky had heard that I was serving a sentence that would keep me in prison for longer than a quarter century. He advised that the best way to serve time was to forget about the outside world. “Settle into the joint and just become one with the walls,” he suggested. “The time will pass quickly enough.”

Blinky concluded his term and was released to a halfway house. Fewer than 12 months later, he returned to the penitentiary. As an explanation, he told me that the struggle was too much. His probation officer was hassling him to find a job, though Blinky said that he met only frustration from prospective employers. Fed up, Blinky reverted to criminal behavior. He robbed a bank at gunpoint. FBI agents apprehended him at the scene of the crime. In a plea deal, Blinky’s judge handed him a fresh 20-year sentence to serve.

Although I was new to prison life when Blinky and I met back in the 1980s, now I have more than 21 consecutive years in confinement. Experiences have taught me a lot. As high recidivism rates suggest, I’ve met, interacted with, and learned from hundreds of prisoners like Blinky. Listening to their stories convinced me that I had to reject the questionable guidance of becoming one with the penitentiary. Instead, I kept my focus on preparing for the obstacles I expected to encounter upon release.

The irony is that, whereas prison guards ignored Blinky and his drinking buddies as they inebriated themselves in the cell, the system of corrections has blocked and frustrated my efforts to reconcile with society every step of the way. Instead of encouraging prisoners who strive to build ties with community leaders and mentors, administrators issue admonitions and block prisoner efforts to connect with society. It is as if the prison system, too, wants those inside to follow Blinky’s advice of becoming “one with the walls.”

We need prison reforms that encourage prisoners to partner with community leaders and mentors. As a long-term prisoner, I refuse to leave confinement without a strong network of support who will assist my transition upon release. I am reaching out constantly with hopes of building ties with journalists, academics, professionals, and other community leaders. Yet administrators discourage my efforts. They warn me that I am not allowed “to promote my books.” I have been transferred from prisons in three separate states as a consequence of my writing for publication. As rules stand, administrators are encouraging more adjustments in the style of Blinky. They do not support those who strive to build ties with community leaders and mentors.

These are the reasons we need prison reforms. By encouraging prisoners to build partnerships with community leaders and mentors, prison reforms would lower recidivism rates and thereby make society safer.

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