Posts Tagged ‘prison reform’


Numbers are tricky. Studies are done. Reports are written. Statistics released. And then people take the numbers and run with them, waving them like protest placards claiming how the numbers prove or disprove some long held “truth.” The Right does it. The Left does it. We all do it. Maybe there’s a tiny toggle in the human genome that manipulates us to manipulate the numbers. That’s why I’ve never liked numbers, never trusted them.

I saw this all play out in a recent Boston Globe OpEd piece about the high rates of recidivism in US prisons. Using the most recent data from the Bureau of Statistics, the numbers roll out: Within six months of being freed 28% of former prisoners were arrested for a new crime; three years, 68%; five years, 77%. 29% of the returnees had been arrested for violent offenses; 38% for property crimes; 39% for drug offenses; 58% for public order crimes. I think everyone would agree that the numbers paint a pretty bleak picture.

But this is where the numbers get tricky. The article insists that these statistics prove that efforts at prison reform and rehabilitation don’t work. Criminal justice experts have been searching for the “holy grail of rehabilitation” for years—40 according to one expert quoted—and nothing has worked. The article then goes on to suggest that since this holy grail is so elusive, since so many criminals leave prison “only too ready to offend again,” we have no option but to continue our present practice of mass incarceration, thus maintaining the US’s global position of locking up 25% of the world’s prison population while being only 5% of its general population.

This is why I don’t trust numbers. In these studies and reports people are treated as mere chits in the final count. No one notices that each one of those hatch marks is an individual, a real person—prisoner, inmate, offender, criminal, con, whatever you want to call them—living a life behind bars that few of us can imagine. That is the real story behind those numbers: a man or a woman, young or old, trying to survive in a prison culture that is designed—in the name of justice—not to nurture change but to demean; a system that punishes by deprivation: lack of proper nutrition; of adequate medical and mental health care; of physical, sexual and psychological safety; of meaningful work and education.

So where’s the mystery to recidivism? It is obvious—basic Social Science 101, basic parenting or human interaction. How you treat people is how they will act. Living under present day prison conditions, day after day, for years, can only foster more bitterness, anger, and despair; can only result in more crime fueled by vengeful feelings upon release.

And that “release” is another crushing blow to the ex-offender’s chances of making it. Many find themselves barred from public housing, food stamps, certain jobs and the right to vote. In some cases Federal education loans are denied for certain crimes. None of these punitive restrictions are an incentive to becoming a productive member of society.

There’s not much forgiveness in American culture. It seems that ex-offenders can’t suffer enough or repent enough for our Puritan tastes. The shackles of restrictions and prejudices that they as “free” men and women drag around may be silent compared to the ones they wore in prison, but those chains still rattle loudly not only in their own ears but in the ears of the communities that continue to shun them.

The roots of recidivism are not that elusive and never have been. Things won’t change until we are willing to define our penal system not as a social solution but as a social problem, one that we tackle with the same determination and vigor as we do other social problems such as addiction, sexual and physical abuse, and inadequate education. What’s our choice: the sacrifice, cost and efforts of true prison reform or the continued warehousing of human beings and the waste of their potential? Look at the numbers.

Originally appeared on Huffington Post


When Americans think about the prison system, we think about the men and women locked up in them and the people who work there. But we rarely, if ever, think about inmates’ families. We should.

The Boston Globe had it right in its recent editorial on the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s putting a halt to the Bristol County sheriff’s $5 dollar a day fee on inmates for upkeep. As the Globe noted, since there were no work release programs or jobs at the jail, inmates’ families were the ones who had to pay the fee, placing on them “an even heavier burden” than they already carry. The Globe urged the Massachusetts legislature not to legalize that burden.

Visiting days were some of the hardest days to work at the county jail where I taught incarcerated high school kids. The lobby filled up with anxious mothers and grandmothers, and got a little raucous with toddlers and babies brought to see their daddies by wives and girlfriends who still found the fortitude to stand by their locked up men.

They got there early because they knew that the jail routine ate into their limited time with their loved ones. But getting there early meant an even earlier start from home, many coming cross county. Most visitors didn’t have cars, and so they took bus after bus after bus. Once signed in, they sat on cracked vinyl benches and waited, the way they waited for those buses.

Then, the slow crawl through security where papers were checked; belongings searched; where belts, boots, bobby pins, jewelry, even the occasional bra had to be removed to clear the metal detector. One glitch and the whole process ground to a halt. Except the clock. It kept ticking, robbing families of what little time they had together.

It was nobody’s fault. Things happen. Someone didn’t know they had to have a picture ID. A grandmother only spoke Spanish. And who would have thought that they needed the baby’s birth certificate?

Things like that happen. But that doesn’t explain the most egregious wrong of visiting days—the way the correctional staff treated visitors. Although the officers working the lobby were “polite” in that cardboard cutout way that people in charge can have, the suspicion and contempt with which they treated the visiting family members were as obvious as the print on an arrest warrant. It was as though those mothers and grandmothers, those wives and girlfriends were themselves criminals.

Those correctional officers, however, were only reflecting the general view that most Americans have about inmates’ families. “If you’d been a better mother.” “If you’d only raised your daughter right her son wouldn’t be here.” “Where’s the father?”  “What are you doing having that thug’s baby?”

Jail strips people of their freedom, their community, and their identity. But those family members who we accuse of neglect and complicity are the only ones who give inmates a sense (as tentative as it may be) of stability and self, of connection to a world they are cut off from.

And when inmates are finally released into a world they are expected to fit into, they return home to those same families we consider inadequate. They may not have much to offer the ex-offender, but what they do offer is a lot more than the plastic bag for clothes, the bus token, and the injunction to “stay out of jail” that most criminal justice systems provide. Imposing an upkeep fee on inmates  only adds to the responsibilities these overburdened families already carry.

By now I thought the shocked reactions to the Department of Justice’s report on sexual abuse of juveniles in detention centers would’ve disappeared. But articles and editorials from across the country continue to appear as states grapple with shocking numbers that won’t go away. Will all this worry and lament translate into change? Who knows?

The one thing I’m pretty sure won’t change is America’s fear of these new barbarians marauding our streets in hordes (except today we call them “gangs.”) Because that fear seems ingrained in our culture, kids will continue to be shut away in the very horrible places we condemn.

But if you’re going to continue putting kids in some kind of detention I have a solution: boot camp.

For several years during my ten year tenure teaching high school kids at a New York county jail I had the privilege (strange as that sounds) of teaching in a boot camp for teenagers serving county time.

When I was first approached about the assignment I turned it down.

They had the wrong guy. After all, I’d been a conscientious objector during Vietnam, and to this day am a staunch pacifist. The military approach to anything is not one I can, or will ever be able to endorse. Young guys? put in a boot camp? to be screeched at? humiliated? all in the name of “helping” them?

I wanted nothing to do with it.

Until I finally gave in and visited the boot camp on which county corrections would model theirs.

What I saw knocked the protest sign out of this old pacifist’s fist.

The boot camp was set in the Catskill Mountains, as far away from Brooklyn (where most of the kids came from) as you can get. Spotlessly clean and well cared for, the place was in stark contrast to the dilapidated jail where I taught.

Equally striking were the teenage boys I saw there with shaved heads; pressed paramilitary green uniforms, and polished boots. They went about their business with an ease that kids doing time, or even kids free on the streets rarely have.

But most impressive, and downright disconcerting, was listening to what these young guys had to say about themselves. They talked candidly about their lives in the hood; the crimes they committed; their endless stints in group homes, detention centers and jails; and the world they were hoping to make for themselves once they were out.

They talked about “core values” and the creed they lived by: “There is nothing I cannot do if I set my heart and mind to it. I am willing to learn,” a creed that gave them hope and the courage to plan for the future.

And the fact that they even envisioned a future for themselves was astonishing enough. So many of the locked up guys I taught didn’t expect to live past 21. They’d seen too many of their fathers and brothers and uncles and friends killed in the streets. Why should their lives be any different?

These “cadets” did something else I never saw in the county jail. They respected themselves and other people; recognized their strengths, yet acknowledged their weaknesses; and took responsibility for their crimes. (It’s pretty common in prison to hear guys say, “I caught a charge,” as though crime was just an H1N1 variation.)

To help them make these leaps, kids in the boot camp had weekly counseling groups, individual sessions, family conferences, job training, school, and lots and lots of PT. The correctional staff that worked with them taught them how to move in their bodies, to stand straight, to walk. There was none of the usual gangsta swagger or jailhouse shuffle. They learned how to be at ease in their bodies instead of holding them like loaded guns ready to explode.

And when they left this greenhouse of recovery for the familiar and unchanged neighborhoods they came from, these young men and their families received intense follow-up services.

It was easy to see that this was not the “scream-in-your-face-you-piece-of-shit-tear-you-down-to-make-you-better” boot camp model I knew was used in rehab centers or in other jails, or had seen horrifyingly glorified in movies like Full Metal Jacket. Instead it was what I called the social work model, one based on compassion (as oxymoronic as that sounds) and not on the barely suppressed rage so many correctional institutions are fueled by.

Much to my surprise, when I returned to the jail I enlisted in the county boot camp which turned out to be a pretty close replica of what I had seen.

I don’t believe that kids should be locked up, not in large detention centers, and certainly not in adult prisons. But if they are going to be incarcerated (and I know they are) I think that every kid should be assigned to this type of humane “boot camp.”

Because every day that I taught there, I left the jail moved by what I saw: kids, no different from society’s young “thugs” locked up just down the hall in the regular jail blocks, struggling against the odds to become decent human beings.

“I won’t do it. I got a right to speak up when something is bullshit.”

Sunny didn’t have a problem firing those words across the principal’s desk when he demanded that she “come back and behave” after he had kicked her out of school (again). And it didn’t bother her that her father was sitting right there.

Sunny hated school. She always had. She felt dumb and out of place. Wise ass, a fighter from the beginning, she didn’t take anybody’s crap and was always in trouble.

So nobody who knew her from those days would be surprised to hear that she ended up in the San Francisco county lock up; that she’d been there for 20 years, and was still there.

But she didn’t get there the way you’d think.

She did it her way, the way she did everything.

Sunny Schwartz became a lawyer, and after doing a notable job working with inmates in the San Francisco Prisoner Legal Service Unit she was asked to head all prisoner programs in the San Francisco county jails. As top administrator, she would revamp a pretty moribund institution, change how things were done, and start new programs.

Dreams from the Monster Factory, Sunny’s book about her prison experiences, describes the successes and the (amazingly few) failures of that transformation and her own personal and professional journey.

Sunny hit one of those rare times in a penal system when a few administrators, in this case two men, are able to acknowledge the system’s breakdowns, and have a vision of how to fix and make it better.

It was a pretty heart-thumping vision at that, especially for those of us who have worked in jails: Change, any change there, is glacial. Nothing gets done, no matter who says they want it done. And even those officials who make modifications end up, in some perverse logic of corrections, sabotaging their own efforts.

But the vision was there in San Francisco in 1990 along with the will and determination to see it through.

“Pull the jail culture down…so it might actually help prisoners,” was the way the prison director put it to Sunny.

“We need someone with your courage to do this,” another corrections official said.

It was a daunting job, but they knew they had her. Only somebody as feisty as that teenager who spit those words across the principal’s desk would take on a challenge like that.

Sunny had always been an advocate for the underdog. But that didn’t make her an easy mark. Dreams From the Monster Factory is filled with stories of Sunny going toe to toe with the toughest thugs—thieves, wife beaters, gangbangers, murders; what she describes as the “scrap heap;” and what, in the jail where I worked, a warden called “human garbage.”

She confronted their behavior and demanded—that’s right, demanded—that they change, that they look at their actions, then take responsibility for them. And they did, because she gave them the message that they were capable of changing.

For some of these men, mean, hard-bitten and cynical, it was the first time anyone had shown that kind of faith in them. The jail culture didn’t believe that they could be any different. Society certainly didn’t. Their families and friends had long given up expecting anything good from them, if they ever had.

But Sunny and the rest of her staff didn’t just set out their demands. They gave inmates the tools they needed to meet them. During the day the TV was turned off (perhaps her most courageous act, considering that TV is the one drug inmates could still get—legitimately), and everybody was required to be in some sort of educational, vocational or therapeutic program. Over time jail life for both inmates and correctional staff improved.

But Sunny wasn’t satisfied. While she recognized that the men’s in-jail behavior had gotten better, she was disturbed by the violence of the inmates’ crimes. It was a violence that tore apart not only their victims’ lives, but also their own lives as well as the lives of the people they loved and the communities in which they lived.

In response to the vast net of suffering she saw, Sunny came up with her boldest plan of all: Put the most violent men in one dorm and start a violence prevention program. RSVP (Resolve to Stop the Violence Program) would be based on the tenets of restorative justice. Through a variety of groups, it would teach the men to forgive themselves for their crimes; to forgive others for the harm done to them (Sunny found that most of the men in RSVP had been victims of childhood trauma); and to seek forgiveness.

Dreams from the Monster Factory tells the heartbreaking, yet heartwarming struggles many of the men went through in RSVP.

One of the most affecting transformations was Ben, a tough, recalcitrant white supremacist/Neo-Nazi. He refused to participate in the program, to examine his hateful and violent behavior. Until finally, through the slow water-on-rock patience of the staff, the other inmates, and RSVP itself, he began to crack open and amend his ways. His final act of reconciliation, and it is a very moving one, came when he volunteered to speak about himself and the program to a synagogue congregation, some of whose members are Holocaust survivors.

What makes Dreams from the Monster Factory so engrossing, however, isn’t just watching a spirited reformer take on the criminal justice system. We are captivated by Sunny’s honesty. She doesn’t shy away from her own process of reconciliation and transformation. She’s right in there with the worst of the worst, grappling with her own monsters—inner and outer—as she learns to forgive herself and others. This combination of personal and public struggle is what gives this book its the strength and beauty.

Early in the book, teenaged Sunny warned that she didn’t put up with anybody’s bullshit—her own, the system’s or society’s. Dreams from the Monster Factory shows her true to her word.