Retribution vs. Rehabilitation

Retribution vs. Rehabilitation

What is the most effective approach to dealing with crime and punishment? Should the criminal justice system primarily be used to punish those who violate the law by sending them to prison for lengthy terms? Or should it rather serve as a mechanism for rehabilitation? This dichotomous question is a polarizing one that aligns people on opposite sides of this argument and has shaped our penal system since its inception.

When men and women come to prison, we invariably cost hard-working, law-abiding taxpayers across this country billions of dollars annually to feed, clothe, and house us. Our water, heat, medical and dental care are all paid for on the backs of hard-working Americans from all walks of life. Recidivism rates show that most of us who are eventually released will re-offend and return to these overcrowded prisons within three to five years, continuously costing taxpayers many more billions of dollars for our lengthy terms of incarceration. This bleak trend will, unfortunately, remain intact if prisons continue to be used to primarily warehouse inmates.

Statistics show the higher the education one attains while incarcerated, the greater the likelihood of his or her success in the community, leading to a lesser likelihood that he or she will return to prison. Subsequently, the longer he or she thrives in a productive role in society, the more he or she will feel like a member of a community and not a criminal outcast. Earning a college degree or becoming certified in a trade while in prison is the key to this radical transformation and reintegration into our communities.

Having noted these promising outcomes, I know it is also paramount that the individual who commits a violent felony pays for his or her crime by serving time in prison. The sensible thing to do is to ensure that prison doesn’t continue to have a revolving door that perpetually costs taxpayers and state budgets billions of dollars, but rather to educate prisoners so they can begin to contribute to society. Offer college and apprenticeship programs to prepare them for the ever-evolving technological and service-based occupations that comprise the 21st century economy. When people have more at stake to lose, they tend to think twice about risking it by doing something illegal.

Understandably, many would vociferously rebut this assertion by arguing, “So, we’re just supposed to reward criminals with a free college education?” My answer would be pragmatically blunt: “No, you don’t have to offer any education of substance at all, but either way you’re going to spend those same tax dollars — either on lengthy incarcerations for re-offenders or on education that would enable them to contribute to society in an economically and socially meaningful way.” Which scenario benefits society more?

I am dismayed that this country that offers abundant opportunity on one hand can simultaneously incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation on earth! We’ve become a state and nation that would rather warehouse human lives in the name of retribution than rehabilitate people for the greater good of our collective society. Ironically, every state in the Union includes the word “corrections” in reference to its prison system. The (fill-in-the-state) Department of Corrections sounds as though it is primarily designed to correct or rehabilitate its occupants — but how? This is paradoxical to say the very least.

Personally, I’ve been extremely blessed to have had the financial means and support from loved ones that have enabled me to attain a college education. When I started this journey in 2004, I’d made the decision to make the most of my time by getting a college education and becoming a substance abuse counselor. I didn’t know how this was going to happen, but I was nonetheless determined.

When I arrived at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in 2005, I began taking college courses one at a time for $25. After my father passed away, I used my portion of his life insurance policy to fund my education via correspondence. I began independently taking courses from other universities, earning a Certificate in Human Services from Louisiana State University, AA from Indiana University, BS in Sociology from Colorado State University, and an MS in Psychology from California Coast University. I was certified as a recovery mentor last year and recently as a substance abuse counselor. Good for me, but what about everyone else? It disheartens me when I think of the lack of opportunity for countless others in Oregon prisons because they have been institutionalized with no real opportunities to rehabilitate themselves and gain something tangible to show for it. Sadly, this deplorable trend will only continue if retribution over rehabilitation remains our state’s and nation’s motive for incarceration.

Education Matters

Education Matters

My name is Eric Burnham, but these days I’m better known as inmate #12729124. I grew up in a low-income, single-mother home. Nobody in my family had ever graduated high school, so any thoughts of college were “what if” dreams.

As a young teenager, I arrived at the conclusion that there was a ceiling over my life. Whether for socioeconomic reasons, psycho-social stumbling blocks, or poor lifestyle choices (perhaps a combination of all three), I grew to accept the idea that there were just some things in life I would not be able to do. Getting a college education was one of those things, and once a person identifies something as unattainable, steps to get it are considered a waste of time. Consequently, when I was 15 I dropped out of school–a dysfunctional family situation made my poor choices much easier. I was messed up inside, and I self-medicated with lots of drugs, alcohol, and consensual sex. I completely embraced a criminal lifestyle. I didn’t really care how I was living or who I hurt as long as I was numb.

During adolescence, the belief that I was incapable, and therefore undeserving, of anything better became a firm fixture within my self-concept. I was deteriorating fast, and the culmination of my poor choices was a life sentence in prison. I was 21-years-old. I take full responsibility for the carnage of my past. I am deeply ashamed of who I used to be. When I arrived at EOCI in 2001, not only did I not have a high school diploma or a GED, but due to my substance abuse during adolescence, I was emotionally underdeveloped as well. I was initially assigned to the GED program. Within two weeks I dropped out, and about a month later I was placed in disciplinary segregation for fighting.

While in segregation, I began to realize I was worth more than the way I had been living. I wanted something different for my future, or I knew I would die in prison. I just didn’t know how to change. I did know, however, that getting back into the GED program was a good place to start. I earned my GED within six weeks, and I felt like a new man. To the prison staff, a GED isn’t much, but to me, earning my GED showed me I was capable of success, which was empowering beyond description.

I began to question my involvement with gangs, drugs, and other nefarious activities. I wanted more. I had begun to view myself as worthy of more. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t really know how to get what I wanted. It was at that point in my life an opportunity to earn college credit via correspondence-course format became available to me. Since I was enrolled in college courses, clear conduct was–and still is–required in order for the Education Department to proctor my tests. I realized I needed to stay away from certain people and activities that could negatively influence me or jeopardize my education. My lifestyle mattered to me for the first time in my entire life.

I freely admit I was scared. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel or how I was supposed to act. All I knew was that I wanted an education, and I didn’t want to let down the people who were supporting me. They believed in me, and nobody had believed in me like that before.

Staying out of trouble for a greater purpose than simply avoiding negative consequences is habit forming. I haven’t been to segregation since I began my pursuit of a college education. In 2015 I graduated Summa Cum Laude (3.98 GPA) with a BA in Counseling, and in 2017 I will graduate with a Master’s degree in Counseling (3.94 GPA). I’m taking my life in a direction I never thought possible.

For me, education has been a catalyst for change. The investment in myself and in my future has had an enormous impact on my self-concept, my worldview, and my decision-making process. Ironically, even though I’m still incarcerated, my education has provided a greater sense of freedom, purpose, and self-assurance than I have ever known. When I’m released from prison, I’ll be pursuing a career, not simply looking for a job. I’ll be able to use the knowledge and experience God has given me to help others who are struggling.

If you have a loved one in prison, one of the best things you can do is help him or her secure educational opportunities. They can use any help you’d be willing to provide. Education is vital in today’s high-tech, fast-paced society. Inmates releasing back into society already have a black mark against them because of the felonies that haunt them. They don’t necessarily need a college degree–college courses, vocational training, or even some anger management or emotional intelligence classes can significantly help. According to the Journal of Correctional Education, 75% of college educated inmates find stable employment upon release, and they have 43% lower odds of future incarceration. Education matters. It can literally change an inmate’s life. I know it changed mine.