“AMERICA’S CULTURE OF INCARCERATION – PART 5 – THE LAND OF LOST OPPORTUNITIES”

By Tony Casson 

“You will be change into a different person.”
1 Samuel 10:6b NLT

“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” Harold Wilson

There will always be a need for places in which to lock up those who present a danger to society or feel that their freedoms and their individual rights supersede another’s, thereby entitling them to live any way they please and take whatever they may want whenever they may want it.

The fact that prisons and jails are needed is beyond debate. However, there are several issues that are debatable: whom should we lock up? What do we attempt to achieve with them – and for them – while we presumably can demand their undivided attention and exercise a high degree of control over their daily lives?

This segment of the series is going to address those who are incarcerated. For the moment, we will not debate the hows and whys that got them all there. The questions that I will try to address are these: What opportunities are we missing to help those who are behind bars? Why do we not improve them, empower them in a pro-social manner, educate them and prepare them for a return to society as productive members? There is much talk about various programs but why does it seem like the success rate is so incredibly low?

As with raising children, there is no guaranteed method of rehabilitating individuals who have found their way into the nation’s jails and prisons. But just as there is a guaranteed way to fail a child, there is certainly a guaranteed way to fail an inmate and that is to do nothing to change those who have demonstrated a distinct need to change. While it is very true that the major impetus for that change needs to come from within the individuals themselves, the philosophy, the structure and the rewards are the direct responsibility of those who are in control of the programs and the environment in which they are administered. Unfortunately, these things are lacking, leading to rehabilitative efforts that are half-hearted at best and non-existent at worst. The attitude of the inmates themselves plays a big part in all of this but the blame lands more squarely on those who formulate, execute and monitor the programs and control the inmates’ lives and environment.

In many of the more than 4,000 prisons in this country, wardens feel that the purpose of a correctional institution is not rehabilitation but custody and public safety. However, those who feel that way are dangerously shortchanging the very society that will have to deal with these graduates of “schools of bad behavior” when they are released. Unless there is a genuine effort made to provide those in custody with rehabilitation, restoration and rejuvenation – a new “3 R’s”, if you will – society’s risk will be even greater upon their release than it was when they entered the system.

I have what I think are the positive, practical and manageable ideas on how to provide those “3 R’s” in a manner that could have a very positive effect on not only those who are incarcerated but upon the society that will eventually have to deal with them. My approach could have the added benefit of helping to lessen the negative impact on the families of those incarcerated. These things will be outlined in detail in an entirely separate article. For now, I only hope to raise the public’s consciousness that current policies and attitudes are accomplishing little and are actually contributing to lost opportunities that do nothing more than foster our culture of incarceration.

Reports vary but many indicate that the number of offenders who are re-arrested within three years of release from prison is as high as 67%. One source for this statistic if Byron R. Johnson’s 2011 book “More God, Less Crime.” Johnson’s book also states that an average of 2,000 individuals per day are released from prisons across the country. That is a staggering 730,000 men and women each year being returned to society, many of whom have done little, if anything, to prepare themselves for freedom. But for many of them, it was simply not a choice. Many individuals would respond if the proper environment was available, but the philosophy of those who actually supervise those behind bars is often in direct conflict with the official philosophy of the state or federal department setting policy.

For example, the official public policy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons leans strongly toward rehabilitation. Harvey Lapin, the BOP’s recently retired head, comes from this public culture of rehabilitation. But was that really where his efforts lay when he was the Director of BOP? Mr. Lapin’s history with the private prison industry speaks otherwise. The following realities of private prisons cannot be denied or ignored: They exist for profit; their product is human beings; they don’t make money if no one is in prison; regardless of public positions, privately, however, rehabilitation is the last thing they want if they are to encourage repeat business.

Immediately upon leaving his position with the BOP, Mr. Lapin went to work as an Executive Vice President for Correctional Corporation of America (CCA). In a bold public move, shortly after commencing work for CCA, Lapin sent a letter to every state offering to pay up to $250 million dollars for the right to operate their entire state prison systems. The state would then pay to manage their “property.” One critical caveat: the state must guarantee 90% occupancy.

This presents a serious quandary. If rehabilitation is important, effective and designed to succeed, prison populations should shrink. In fact, it should be a concrete goal to reduce prison populations by 50-75% nationally for myriad reasons, including humanitarian ones as well as for taxpayer relief.

How can a suggestion of a guaranteed level of incarceration of human beings be viewed as anything less than a shameless disregard for humanity; and any state that does business with companies that promote such disregard for humanity should have those responsible for approving the contracts investigated for political cronyism of the sort that contributes to corporate greed in a shameless business that should be unconstitutional in the first place.

Owing to the effectiveness of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the whole private prison industry and their lobbyists as well as unscrupulous, insensitive and politically driven office-holders, this nation’s prison system is bursting at the seams and is such a strain on state and federal resources that rehabilitation has slipped considerably in importance, even in those rare instances where genuine efforts can be acknowledged. For the most part, what was already an ineffective system of unenthusiastically administered programs is now in more danger than ever before.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report titled “Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff and Infrastructure.” Following the report, experts warned that “the ballooning incarcerated population puts inmates and guards at risk and holds back efforts to rehabilitate convicts.” Inimai Chettiar, a director at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law said, “People will get out of prison, but they’re not being helped to re-enter society.”

I have demonstrated in past articles how the private prison industry arrives at its profit in part through the reduction in rehabilitation programs to lower recidivism. This has the added benefit to their bottom line of increased individuals returning to prison. There is no logical incentive for private companies to do anything that could potentially reduce prison populations. This should not be a difficult perspective for our politicians and our courts to understand and accept. We have already seen a case where the rehabilitation program consisted of daily crossword puzzles being slipped under the cell doors of inmates. We have also seen 52% of Louisiana’s state prison inmates languishing in parish jails for years with no rehabilitative programs available.

The concept of rehabilitation in this country is broken. Prison rehabilitation is more about lost opportunities than it is about working to transform individuals and give them an education, skills, self-respect, hope and a fresh start.

This is truly a tragedy since so much of a prison inmate’s daily existence is monitored, dictated, scheduled or controlled. With that much power being exerted over people, the taxpaying public has a right to demand better use of that opportunity to implement changes in the way inmates think and act. Can all of them be transformed into people who contribute positively to society? Of course not. But it often seems as if there has been a total collapse of effort to maximize the results.

Society has failed many of these men and women in their childhood. This calls into question our ability to call ourselves a civilized country should we fail them again.

We can do a much, much better job. But not until we eliminate this culture of incarcerating the highest number of people possible for the longest time we can, with the least amount of reason.

            More tomorrow…

 

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