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.

Recycle Me

Recycle Me

With over 2 million citizens of this country locked in cages, one can’t help but feel as though our lives are dispensable. One can’t help but feel as though our society deems us not worthy of correction that would send us back to our communities as assets rather than liabilities. If the trend has been to lock up, throw away the key, and provide very few mechanisms for rehabilitation, how can anyone reach an alternative conclusion to what I just outlined?

For myriad reasons, many of us chose a wayward path during our youth that involved crime, drugs, and more. It’s also important to note that this behavior took root before our brains were able to develop into a mature, rationally-minded person. Not to make excuses, but our immature brains that hadn’t undergone the process of strengthening our neocortex — responsible for rational thought, projection of consequences, goal-setting, and more  (studies show the adult brain reaches full development around 26) — were in full swing in our decision-making processes. Many parents with teenagers and young adult children will readily attest to the frustration they endure over the many mindless decisions their impulsive children make; the good thing is most of these decisions are not costly, certainly not in terms of leading to violations of state laws that can result in long prison sentences. And then there are the rest of us.

Those of us who came to prison at a young age (prior to 26), are forced to navigate a new world of criminality, manipulation, violence, brutality, and inhumane conditions of many proportions. We are left with our self-preservation skills, will to survive, and, if we are lucky, an environment that supports our developmental process that will likely include a desire to change, learn, and grow. This is what I found early in my sentence and thank God I was able to take full advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves, eventually leading to a graduate degree and a state certification in the substance addictions field. I now have an insatiable drive to deliver these services to the community that I took so much from when I am released in a few short years. Today, my life has value, purpose, and meaning.

When human lives are trafficked through our penal system like product on a conveyor belt, dumped into large trash bins (prisons) with no way to climb out for countless years, our society sends us a powerful message of what our worth is — or is not. Yet, I have had the privilege (yes, that’s not a misprint) of knowing some of the most incredibly talented, altruistic, intelligent people I have ever known right here in these “trash bins.” I believe this is because while here they dug deep within themselves to discover who they really are without the influence of substances, negative environs, and, oh yes, the opportunity for their immature brains to develop. That’s the good news. The bad news is many of them will never see the light of day in the free world again. Many will be over 100 — if they’re so lucky — before their release date comes. Their talents, gifts, and value are limited to being realized only within these walls. What a shame.

We are encouraged to recycle many products after using them because we know, once sent through a process of being broken down and restored to new form, these products will once again have value; they will go on to serve another purpose. In the same way this is an expected outcome, human lives are also of value and purpose after coming through this rigorous process. Of course, we could do far better as a society with what we offer those in prison to restore themselves, but that aside, many undergo a life-changing maturation process while here based on their sheer determination and self-will. So please, in the same way you refuse to throw away your plastic milk cartons, do not throw us away — recycle us. Allow us to show you our value.

Review of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison by Senator Jeff Smith

What a book! This indepth, candid memoir depicts a prominent man’s epic fall from being a young hot shot politician with a sky’s-the-limit career staring him in the face to a convicted felon serving hard time in a federal prison among some of society’s most degenerate criminals. And yet, this 5′ 2″ suburbanite with a Ph.D was able to not only successfully conform and navigate his new survival-driven surroundings, but also thrive in numerous ways while coming away with a wealth of knowledge that has spurred his efforts to reform the criminal justice system from, once again, a position of prominence and privilege.

It’s not everyday that a politician is convicted of a campaign indiscretion (well, an illegal act in terms of campaign laws) and sent to federal prison, but Smith acknowledges and admits fault for his poor judgement, despite the fact that most who commit such crimes do so routinely and with impunity. He does not dwell on this fact, however, but instead chooses to focus on how he can best utilize his time — and that he does.

In his book, Smith takes his readers through a vivid depiction of prison life by narrating many personal anecdotes of his prison experience, relationships, and the peculiar dynamics that characterize prison life. He provides succinct translations of all institution jargon that he uses throughout the book for his readers’ comprehension, giving the full effect of his experience. We learn about his awkward adjustments to certain situations that could potentially get someone beat up or even killed, his run-ins with Aryan Brotherhood members who detested his association with black inmates, and his resourcefulness in using his superb athletic prowess to make friends while simultaneously building alliances. But this book is so much more than a memoir of intriguing tales of prison exploits and riveting episodes of survival among career criminals — so much more.

Former State Senator Smith was astonished to discover the plethora of untapped human talent locked away in state and federal prisons while he served time for a year. He began to draw the many connections between the prison population and the political world: both require a fierce tenacity in order to gain an advantage over others; both demand assertiveness and attentiveness to details in a world where complacency can be one’s literal or figurative demise. But even more than that, says Smith, there lies a mountain of human potential in the drug dealers who possess inherent, extraordinary entrepreneurial attributes, the embezzler who has superb accountant skills, and the con artist who is charismatic and possesses the gift of gab better than most. The issue, however, is the illegal ways they have used their gifts.

Smith advocates for rehabilitative mechanisms to be implemented in the criminal justice system that would not only educate and transform these men into productive members of society, using their gifts for the benefit of us all, but also demonstrates how investments in such resources would save the American taxpayers billions of dollars over time. He cites many studies that substantiate his claim, bolstering the legitimacy of his proposed solutions and causing the average, rationally-minded reader (regardless of where ones stands ideologically or politically) to think critically about the issue of mass incarceration and our philosophy as a nation on the criminal justice system.

This man’s tumultuous, unlikely journey is a compilation of entertaining stories of how anyone who didn’t grow up in a criminal environment might successfully adjust to the violent, predator-prey, perpetually volatile prison setting they are thrust into. It is also a very insightful, thoughtful manifesto of what is glaringly wrong with our current prison (and political) system and how it can begin to be rectified, benefiting all of America at the same time. Mr. Smith Goes to Prison is one of my favorite books this year, and I am confident it will be one of yours. Give it a read — you won’t be sorry you did.

“The System” Is Not Broken

“The System” Is Not Broken

It’s true: the American criminal justice system is not broken — it’s doing exactly what it is designed to do.

Far gone are the days when the only things that distinguished prisons from college campuses were the barbed-wired fences, gun towers, and . . . oh yeah, the fact that people couldn’t go home when class was over. But the most prominent features that make colleges what they are (classrooms full of eager, studious learners and willing instructors looking to advance the specialized knowledge of these students) were no different in prison settings across this vast country. But that was also when college tuition was available to inmates via the federal Pell Grant program — before President Clinton abolished this all-important rehabilitative mechanism with a single stroke of his presidential pen. Out went the funding for college degrees for inmates, and in came the rapid increase of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that would balloon the prison population to the staggering 2.2 million individuals that we see locked up (state, federal, and county jails) today.

Such laws came about with the introduction of the now infamous Crime Bill signed into law, incentivizing states to build new prisons by allocating billions of dollars for such projects. Logically, it then makes sense to devise laws that would sweep large numbers of bodies off the street and into jails and prisons for extended stays. Mandatory minimums made perfect sense during this era as an extremely sinister means to this egregiously inhumane ends. Moreover, the majority of those who make up the system are — wait for it — black and brown. Without attempting to litigate the veracity of the claim that there is inherent and even calculated bias and racism behind this outcome, it is fair to assert that the radical disproportionality of who is affected by this system is, at the very least, a problem that warrants being addressed.

Every year there are approximately 650,000 people released from incarceration. Within three years, two-thirds return to confinement for a host of reasons — they are unable to find gainful employment, housing, loans for higher education, etc. At every turn they are denied opportunity to fully reintegrate into their communities, whether it be through voting, participating in many volunteer programs, and/or furthering their careers. These folks succumb to the insidious notion that life is far too arduous for their withstanding, and it would be much easier to revert back to what they have always known. And like a conveyor belt that never stops moving – transporting its products from the beginning of the process to the end continuously – these people are swept back up, placed on the conveyor belt, and whisked away to the next arm of the system to be processed.

We often refer to our criminal justice system as “broken” because we are viewing it strictly from a humanitarian standpoint. We find it reprehensible that our country incarcerates its citizens at a much higher rate and for lengthier stays, on average, than any other nation on earth. We are repulsed at the fact that we funnel far more money into constructing and maintaining prisons in America than we do our schools and extra curricular activities — things that could actually deter kids from turning to crime when they are most impressionable. But the reality is, our nation is not concerned with preventing crime and offering its help to those who are most at-risk for committing such crime, but rather its focal point is rounding up as many people as it possibly can to keep an industry (yes, people actually can buy stock in private prison corporations) — a big business — thriving and ever-expanding. We endorse warehousing humans, not rehabilitating them. The latter would surely be counter-productive to this cause. The object is not to keep people out of the system by funding initiatives that have been proven to prevent crime and reduce recidivism; but rather to ensure that a large number of people stay ensnared in the criminal justice system, that they continue to take their place on the proverbial conveyor belt – over and over again. Therefore, when viewed more accurately for what it is, the system is not broken — it’s more like a well-oiled machine; fluidly carrying out its mechanical mission by doing exactly what it’s designed to do.escents who struggle with substance abuse.

Mass Incarceration Statistics: The Sentencing Project

Prison populations began creeping up in the late 1970’s, exploding in the mid 1980’s. The graphics below represent a 500% increase over the past thirty years.

The Sentencing Project publishes “groundbreaking research, aggressive media campaigns and strategic advocacy for policy reform.”

Their interactive map shows prison statistics for each state:

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 5.25.09 PM

Just below the map, choose any U.S. state and see its prison population growth from 1980 to 2011.

clalifornia prison population  1980-2011

See here the effect the drug war has had on our “incarceration-mania,” as Piper Kerman calls it.

prison population for drug offenses 1980 vs 2013

Also check out these fact sheets. Here’s a shocking statistic – as many as 100 million US citizens have a criminal record (that’s nearly one in three), which allows the state to legally discriminate against them – often barring them from voting. 126 million people voted in the 2012 presidential election. Imagine how felony disenfranchisement changes election outcomes, and why those in power might want to see that continue.