Top Ten Prison Reform Goals, Article 5: Prison Reforms Ought To Enable Financial Stability

By · Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Prison rules that prohibit inmates from earning an income do not serve society’s interests. More than 650,000 people return to American communities from places of confinement each year. Those who have served lengthy periods of time leave confinement without the resources necessary to function. They lack clothing, shelter, and money. For many, finding employment may take months, and stability will not come until several paychecks have been earned. Prison reforms must change this recipe for continuing disaster.

Recidivism rates suggest the severity of obstacles following release. More than six of every ten people who leave confinement return to jails or prisons within a few years. Such failures come at a great cost to society. One of the reasons these people revert to crime, my research suggests, is that people who leave prison have a terrible time resuming their lives.

Billy was a prisoner with whom I served time while I was confined in the low-security prison at Fort Dix. He had completed 12 consecutive years in prison, during which time he lost contact with society. When he returned to Philadelphia, the only people he knew were other people he had met during the time he served in prison. The conditions of Billy’s release prohibited him from associating with any known felons, including the friends he had made during his previous decade of confinement. He was alone in the city.

While in the halfway house, Billy secured a job in a bakery. He earned approximately $400 each week, yet halfway house rules required that Billy forfeit 25 percent of his gross earnings, or $100 each week to pay the costs of his confinement. After taxes and other costs of living a frugal life, Billy said he had less than $20 available to save. Those minimal savings were insufficient for Billy to gather the resources he needed to become independent of the halfway house. He could not come up with the funds necessary to rent a small apartment, much less the furnishings necessary for the apartment. Lacking hope, or a path he could see to independence, Billy made the bad decision to steal from his employer; he was caught stealing bread. The employer not only fired Billy, but also reported Billy’s theft to his probation officer. The probation officer charged Billy with violating the conditions of his release and returned him to confinement for a period of nine months.

As a prisoner who serves a 45-year prison term, I have heard hundreds of stories from people who return to confinement after their initial release. They always tell me that financial hardship is what drove them back to crime or caused their return to confinement. I’ve learned from their experiences, and in so doing, I’ve made a personal commitment to ensure that I would conclude my prison term with the financial resources in place to facilitate my success. In creating work that earns an income, however, some may argue that I violate rules that prohibit inmates from conducting a business.

We need prison reforms that will stop the punishment of inmates who work hard to create value for society. Over the course of the 21 years that I have served in prison, my work has generated more than $1 million in revenues. Those revenues have come from market speculation and publishing, and have paid for a portion of my confinement through appropriate tax filings. More importantly, the earnings I have received have sustained my family and they have ensured that I will have the stability I need to succeed upon my release.

>More than abiding by prison rules that condition perpetuating cycles of failure, my allegiance is to my family. I am proud to make this commitment to succeed upon my release, and we need prison reforms that will encourage such positive adjustments. In so doing, such prison reforms will make society safer by lowering recidivism rates and tragedies like Billy’s life.

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