Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Suggest that the way to end recidivism is to reform the prison system, and you might be accused of caring more about criminals than the crimes they commit. It’s happened to me. Often when I write or give a talk about my work with minors in adult prison, I describe the deplorable conditions in which inmates live, and advocate for reform of those conditions. Inevitably someone comments (and not always politely) that I’m “soft on crime,” that I don’t care about victims. But this is how I see it.
Given our present prison system with its emphasis on punishment and retribution, everybody suffers. Inmates, correctional officers, victims, the average citizen and taxpayer.
Prisons are violent, toxic places. They are often overcrowded and smelly with the soup of open toilets, the effluence of crammed together bodies under stress with little or no physical or personal space. The noise is deafening. TVs blare (in English and Spanish); metal gates clang; the overused PA system squawks, and inmates and correctional staff shout over it all trying to be heard.
There’s no trust in a prison, no safety, just the constant threat of violence, intimidation, the need to never let your guard down, to “give as good as you get.” If an inmate wants to survive in prison that’s the way he or she must act. If they can’t, they find themselves in protective custody which translates as months of numbing isolation in solitary confinement.
When you look at these conditions honestly, without the filter of righteousness—“that’s what they get for breaking the law”—how could you not see that the present system (the very thing people insist will deter crime) only breeds anger and resentment, hostility and hopelessness in offenders, and finally leads to more crime?
And more crime means that victims are not only not served by the system but are further threatened by it, and that their suffering reverberates into their families and communities. More crime means that other citizens become victims until nobody feels safe, and the whole cycle starts all over again. A simple statistic: Kids handled in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend and their behavior to more quickly escalate into violence than those young people who remain in the juvenile system.
But there are other “victims” of the prison system and its harsh, dangerous, and degrading environment. Correctional officers operate under the same conditions as those locked up, many times for up to 16 hours a day as they choose or are pressed into working overtime. That point came home to me at the end of one school year. As temperatures soared, the heat in the hallways and cell blocks of the older buildings of the prison where I taught (luckily with an air conditioner supplied by the school program) was insufferable. Huge floor fans only moved the suffocating air around, offering no relief, and only adding to the noise. That’s when it first hit me that the COs I interacted with every day were as trapped in the same punishing conditions as the young offenders I worked with.
But it goes beyond the everyday level of physical discomfort for COs. The need to be hyper-vigilant, the defensive stance engendered by the institutionalized hostility of the prison power structure—“us” and “them”; the keepers and the kept—takes its toll not only on COs, but also on their families. Studies have shown that 31% of correctional officers meet “the criteria for full PTSD” (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder); that the average life expectancy is 58 years old, and that correctional officers have a 39% higher suicide rate than any other occupation.
Even those of us who are not personally caught in the web of incarceration are affected by the prison system. Our tax money is spent building and maintaining these institutions and supporting what goes on inside them. In many states these funds are diverted from basic, essential services such as education. For example California spends on average $47,421 per inmate a year while the average spent per student a year is only $11,420. (A telling tweet is going around Twitter that sums it up for many states, “The people of CA are tired of Cadillac prisons & jalopy schools.”)
So when I find myself labeled as “soft on crime” I have an old jail comeback: “Don’t take my kindness for softness.” Restructuring a broken prison system so that it protects and respects all citizens while holding offenders accountable is not “soft” but commonsense. We need to create prison conditions, both physical and psychological, that encourage cooperation on all sides and that supports change as opposed to conflict and calcification of negative behavior. Programs must be developed that challenge offenders to change their counterproductive behavior. Training in real employable occupations is essential. And support services must be established that help ex-offenders meet the demands of “going straight.”
Of course, the economic watchdogs will howl. But the human costs—to inmates, correctional officers, victims and society in general—are too high to be ignored. Reforming is better than warehousing people in prison for years, leaving them to await the next dead-end. You can call it soft. I call it the only way.
Originally appeared in Gandhi’s Be Magazine