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There has been a lot of talk recently about prison crowding and clemency. We are past the point of debating if our country has a prison problem. The facts that we imprison one in 100 of our citizens, and that the “land of the free” is home to 5% of the world population and 25% of its prison population, are thrown around so often we become numb to what they say about us, and what it means for the people inside.
Prison in America IS traumatic stress disorder. On the inside, the only hope for avoiding trauma may be trying to dish it out. Not all cellblocks were designed this way; a few may be fine. But not many; not enough. The only prison stigma worth perpetuating should be against those trying to ignore or delay addressing this crisis.
President Obama earns one of his many “D-‘s” in drug reform from hesitation to exercise his clemency authority. Earlier this year, the White House and Department of Justice sent signals that this trend might change, encouraging defense attorneys and prisoners to apply for clemency.
Congress, of all places, is taking action too. Reforms adopted in 2010 helped turn the disparity in sentencing of crack cocaine and powder cocaine crimes from “super racist” all the way to “less racist-y.” And earlier this month Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed recommendations from the U.S. Sentencing Commission to remove mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, and reduce sentencing for low level dealing to 51 months instead of 62. Unless Congress moves to block it, these changes go into effect in November, beginning a process where thousands of prisoners will see early release.
These are good steps that may help non-violent prisoners get out faster, but our recidivism rate is still abysmal. What is missing from these changes is prisoner re-entry, or what happens after a convict is released.
Ex-convicts lose any number of rights and access to services. Depending on the state, some can never vote again. Most lose any chance at education, food, or housing assistance. While prison healthcare can be sub-par, it’s still better than no healthcare, which is what many return to.
If there is one sad theme of our history, it’s that freedom is relative if you’re not considered equal. We delude ourselves, believing that we don’t want prisoners released hastily because of the threat they pose to us. But it’s time to see that recidivism is not a result of every felon being a wretched waste of life, but of a system that never “freed” them to begin with.
Legalizing a plant, or even ending the “crime” of possession is a worthy push – it helps keep people from going in. The reforms supported by Holder and the Sentencing Commission help them get out earlier. We need more of both. But it shouldn’t just be about opening a cell, or expunging a record, but taking steps to ensure the cell isn’t refilled and the need for record expunging diminishes.
New York state has one good idea. After eliminating their in-prison college programs in the 1990s (like most states), Governor Andrew Cuomo explains, “You pay $60,000 for a prison cell for a year. You put a guy away for 10 years, that’s 600 grand. Right now, chances are almost half, that once he’s released, he’s going to come right back.” Cuomo believes that the recidivism rate – as well as gross cost to taxpayers – can be decreased by reinstating prison college programs, which cost about $5K per year per inmate.
There is push back to this idea, people wondering where is the support for other New Yorkers to attend college. That’s a reasonable question, but the state’s Higher Education Services Corporation, a state agency, DOES offer grants of up to $5,000 to eligible students. Your kid doesn’t get free college, true, but they’re also not being assaulted in incarceration. In-prison education is one policy to help keep people from re-offending and winding up back behind bars. Others include:
- Elimination of long-term solitary confinement, a practice that exchanges massive psychological stress for almost no rehabilitation, and little safety improvement.
- Reforming opportunistic phone practices which, in some states, result in prison phone calls costing more than twice the cost of service. This further isolates prisoners from friends and family, with the difference a kickback to state government.
- Restoration of voting rights to anyone not currently under correctional supervision. I trust more ex-cons to vote responsibly than I do members of Congress.
- Constitutionally, it’s legal to pay slave wages to a prisoner. It’s government sweatshops and leaves most prisoners with no real savings upon release. (Requiring compensation closer to minimum wage would likely help limit the need for the following suggestions).
- Equal access to welfare programs, student aid, or employment assistance. If they’re in your community paying taxes, it’s obscene to deny them access to the types of services they’re paying for.
- Better investment in the re-entry programs that do exist like transitional housing or drug treatment. Lack of a stable home upon release is a massive strike against anyone’s odds of success, and more affordable than time incarcerated.
- An awareness campaign focused on de-stigmatizing former convicts to potential employers and the public. In this writer’s opinion, only an unemployed veteran is in greater need of a good job than a former prisoner.
All of these possibilities come with costs, but so does recidivism. Releasing every non-violent drug offender through sentencing changes or executive actions like clemency is only half the answer. The public should continue to press officials for those types of reforms AND changes to re-entry policies that acknowledge when people have paid their debt to society. The good news is, we have lots of crowded state prisons to act as laboratories for reforms. Other governors should follow New York’s lead.
We need to meet people with a smile and open heart, not a suspicious gaze and closed mind. It will pay dividends.