Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Voice in the New Jersey State Prison: A Common Sense Argument


This article came to me through an on-line source. It is from an inmate in a New Jersey State Prison.

There is a debate raging in America about prisons and prisoners. The government has declared a "war"on drugs. They have mandated "truth in sentencing" and promulgated various other means to eliminate parole. The No Early Release Act, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and other laws are designed to mandate 85% of more of a sentence to be served before release. With both major political parties afraid to appear soft on crime, with the national debt and state economies faltering, a very real question is: "What will be sacrificed to pay for prisoners?"

The four most commonly accepted reasons for prisons are: deterrence, incapacitation, retribution and correction. But as they exist today, prisons only address one of these: incapacitation. Without effective programs to help the prisoner, to address the reasons for their incarceration, and attempt to correct them, what happens when the person is released? More than two-thirds of prisoners re-offend within three years.

This country was built on common sense, hard work and innovation. Helping others when needed, as well as giving others a second chance; recognizing when problems exist and working to correct them have always been quintessential American values. As our country has progressed and evolved economically, the niches filled by the migrant worker, the harvest hand and the small operator have been eliminated by big business. Tolerance has been replaced by harsh conformity. Many crimes that were tolerated years ago as "harmless pranks" or "wild oats" by society are now being prosecuted and violators sent to prison. Prisons have been transformed into the newest big business, instead of Society's last resort.

Prisons have never, to a measurable degree, deterred people from crime.With few exceptions, from the conception of the modern prison, cerca1790, prison populations have steadily grown. Since the first American prison, it has been a professed goal to reform prisoners through labor. This sentiment was legally codified as early as 1808. Both the Auburn and Philadelphia prison models were based upon prison labor. Prisons were, and are, so expensive to operate that any financial offset prisoners could provide is necessary. Until 1929, the industrial workfarm more than paid for itself when Congress passed two laws: the Hawes-Cooper Act in 1929, and the Ashurst-Sumners Act in 1935, which, along with the Great Depression, killed the industrial prison.

With the demise of the work farm, education now came to the forefront of prison reform. Initial programs taught various blue collar skills such as carpentry, masonry, auto mechanics, landscaping and other skills needed to get a job upon release. As time progressed, more sophisticated classes were introduced, such as drafting, offset printing, high school classes, and college courses. In the 1970s and 80s, sociologists were able to conclusively demonstrate that education had a definite impact on lowering the prison population. However, many of the college programs depended upon grants.

The most popular was the federal Pell Grant, which was discontinued in the early 1990s becausethe need for college assistance grew in society and prisoners were seen to be expendable. While educating prisoners is expensive, educationhelps pay for itself by reducing recidivism and thus prison costs.While many may legitimately argue that society shouldn't pay forprisoners to be educated, here are a few statistics no one can deny:

National Institute on Literary: 70% of all prisoners function at the twolowest literacy levels.

Bureau of Justice: 47% of State Prisoners have never completed highschool or its equivalent. Less educated prisoners are more likely to be recidivists.

National Institute of Justice: 60% of former prisoners are not employed one year after release.

U.S. Dept. of Education: Participation in State correctional educationprograms lowers the likelihood of incarceration by 29%.

N.J. Institute for Social Justice: 95% to 97% of those currently incarcerated in N.J. will eventually be released.

In 2002, more than 2 million people were incarcerated in Federal orState prisons, or local jails. Nearly 650,000 people are released from incarceration to communities nationwide each year. In his 2004 State of the Union address, President Bush said: "We know from long experience that if former prisoners can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison...America is the land of the second chance, and when the gates of the prison open the path ahead should lead to a better life."There are many committees and think tanks that examine the problems of incarceration and recidivism. Recently several such groups collectivelywrote and published "New Jersey Community & Corrections Working Summit:Impacting Communities of Color."

This collaboration addressed manydifferent issues and made the following recommendations: "The participants...believe that rehabilitation services provided to prisoners during their incarceration are not just cost effective; they also make good public policy sense...Residents of New Jersey have failed to recognize the significant costs they absorb, and in reality, the minimal benefits they receive in turn, when the criminal justice system does little other than function as a temporary human warehouse called punishment. It is imperative that the residents of New Jersey be educated as to the...benefits to instituting increased rehabilitation efforts in our State's prisons."
A second report, "Coming Home for Good: Meeting the Challenge of Prison Reentry in New Jersey," published by the New Jersey Institute for SocialJustice, made similar recommendations: "Even within existing budget constraints, periods of incarceration can be used far more effectively to maximize successful reentry."On the other side of the coin, the Corrections Transition Policy Group(CTPG) generated a Final Report dated January 10, 2006, for Governor Corzine. While including some of the same members, their report was markedly different. Their report made ten recommendations. Eight made by the CTPG involve more money, more staff positions and therefore more power for prison unions.

Consider this: in July of 1999, the prison population was 31,300. In January 2005 it was 26,911, a reduction of some 14%. In 1999, prisoners had access to legal libraries, reading libraries, and educational assistance seven days per week, three times per day, morning, afternoon and night (barring holidays). In 2006, prisoners have access five days per week, twice per day, morning and afternoon (no weekends or holidays) and nighttime access has been all but eliminated a reduction of 52% (21 time periods to 10 periods). Eachtime the reason given for the reduction was staffing shortages. Yet today there are more guards working for the D.O.C. than there were in1999.

A second recommendation made by the CTPG was "Focus in-prison programming on quality education, drug treatment, and work..." Since around January 2005, the school area has been closed for more than 7 of16 months for various reasons. The repair shop work detail has been completely eliminated (50 inmate jobs removed). The State Use (Depcor) program has lost 22 job positions. The Laundry detail lost more than 10 inmate job positions. Nearly 100 jobs lost in all, in direct contradiction of the experts' recommendations. As of January 2006, State Use industries revenues at New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) were more than $250,000 less than a year previous. This shortfall can be directly attributed to the current management.

PrisonIndustries perform an invaluable role. In addition to supplying jobs, in Fiscal Years 2001/2002 State Use inmates paid more than $650,000toward court ordered obligations such as fines, child support, traffictickets, etc. It also saves the state thousands of dollars every year.During 2005, the NJSP was locked down three separate times. No one inmate who worked for State Use Industries received any institutional infraction during these periods. Not a single one. Yet jobs were cut 25%. You cannot run a successful business when the doorman controls the business.

Inmate literacy has been noted in other reports for more than six years, yet nothing has been done. These same people are still "talking". While not all the reports are beneficial to prisoners, they are all desperately needed because they show a gradual awakening in society that incarceration alone does not work, that educational opportunity and other programs for prisoners is not being soft on crime, but instead addresses the underlying causes of crime. Instead of more reports and recommendations, what is needed now is a voice-a voice to integrate what has been projected; and propose from these ideas a concrete manifestation.

One thing I have noted time and again: there is no input from current or former prisoners. I know many inmates are poorly educated or sufferingf rom various addictions. Others suffer from mental illness. None of us claim to be wizards, but we are more than baboons waving sticks. We dohave ideas, and who knows, some may actually prove to be good ones. Prisons in their current incarnation are dinosaurs waiting to die off. It's ironic that education has never been more available and widespread worldwide, and yet it is being slowly but surely eliminated from the prison environment.


Daddydan said...

Kid radical,

When i was studying US Prison systems at Fordham U., I read a great book, which was written by current prisoners on death row in one of the most infamos prisons in the country, Angola. I have to get back to you on the name, but it was really a great piece of writing, about two guys on death row who started the newspaper in the prison.

The prisons in Brazil are worse, which mad reading your post all the more interesting. rits, corruption, inhumane treatment, 100 people in a cell for 20, no rehabilitation at all. This is, however, a third-world-country that is just growing up after 20 years of military dictatorship. The US cannot use any excuse for the sorry state and neglect of its prisons. We need to, as Americans, understnd the concept of "enlightened self-interest" something I learned at FU, too. Even if 'you" as a tax-paying citizen who doesnt rob stores doesnt care about prisons and prisoners, you need to realize that a prison that does nothing to improve the lives of those locked up will spit out ex-cons with no prospects and on their way back to waste more of those taxpayers money.

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