Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Why Prison Is Failing (Part I)"

One of the most pressing problems the penal system faces is over population. The fault lies as much with the system itself as it does with the criminals. We are responsible for our own actions and most of us are guilty of crimes deserving time in prison but it is the justice system that is to blame for unnecessarily lengthy stays, avoidable sentences and the law success rate of productive reentry into society. Allow me to explain:

1. Unnecessarily lengthy stays: Sentencing is not based upon the likelihood of re-offense, there is no rehabilitation system for the earning of early release (at least not in Virginia) and most institutions enforce a retinue of rules designed not with the purpose of running an orderly operation but with the intent to antagonize the inmates. This allows them to write institutional charges that cost us money or lengthen our sentences.

Many of us can look around and clearly see who will get out and never cause another problem in society and who will still be a threat. Those striving for betterment in their lives often are serving lengthier sentences. Many of the most corrupt, violent and ignorant individuals are the ones getting released soon. Speaking of which, a prime example just sat down across from me. He is serving his third sentence. The first two were drug related, this last one an attempted car-jacking. Everyday he tries to scam people, looks for drugs and masturbates in a place where female officers working in the building can see him (an act known as 'gunning' in here). Now, I'm sure we can agree that this is a sick individual, unfit for society. A con man, a drug addict and a potential rapist...Guess what? He gets out in less than two years.

Then there are the guys like myself who spend everyday working to better ourselves. Yet, no matter what we accomplish, we will still be here long after the men I just described above.

There are no policies governing how sentences are determined and no real method of evaluating an offender prior to the sentencing. We are subject to the whims of the judges hearing our cases. Judges vary from case to case, so you may find a murderer, a car-jacker and a child molester all serving 50 year sentences, while three others with the exact same charges are only serving 20 years. A rapist serving 5 years, while a drug dealer serves 15 years.

The State has made it abundantly clear it cares nothing for rehabilitation. So, they chuck us into these holding pins for various amounts of time and do nothing to aid us in our quest to mature into productive citizens. In fact, they often work to hinder us in our goal. Educational programs and institutes of higher learning are difficult to enroll in, particularly for any of us in with more than five years left to serve. Pursuit of personal interests are not encouraged. As a writer I have no access to a typewriter and publication requires me to jump through hoops, if I ever get a shot. Rather than encouraging offenders to strive for betterment and aiding us in this pursuit, they offer us no motivation. Now, I agree that this is not an excuse. Those who truly wish to change will be self-motivated but certainly by offering rehabilitative programs that allows one to potentially earn an earlier release date, will find those who are not as self-motivated working towards various goals. Of course, there should still be some form of evaluation to determine who is truly ready for reentry and who is not.

Finally, it should not be a priority for institutions to create numerous policies that are unnecessary or to antagonize inmates who are causing no problems. The institutions primary goal should be to work with the wards of the institution, as to see the operation of the prison run more smoothly and the inmates housed are encouraged in attempts of productivity and ultimately a successful reentry into society.


  1. Most states spend more on incarceration than on education which is a telltale sign of a sick society. It also doesn't help that privatized prison is now big business.

  2. They focus on the problem rather than the solution - or prevention. That's sad.
    Don't let the reality of your situation beat you down, Daniel. Keep trying.

  3. Be the change you want to see.

    Keep your chin up, keep writing. There are people out here who are listening.

  4. This is interesting--I was not aware of your topic today and yet the Thursday debate topic that I posed today is related to just this.

    I agree that the judicial system can be highly inconsistent and at times unfair. However personal accountability is a very important step. That combined with persistence in your efforts to better yourself and find a way out may eventually pay off, but inmates must stay on track no matter what. We are all prisononers in one way or another and have our own obstacles to overcome in our lives. It's whether we try and how we try that matters.

    Tossing It Out

  5. DANIEL ~
    This was an interesting blog bit.

    I am in agreement with Lee's comment; he hits the nail on the head. But I will add a couple of comments of my own:

    For some years, I was a voluntary correspondent with a certain spiritual organization's official Prison Outreach Program. In that capacity I was a kind of pen pal to a variety of different inmates in a number of state penal institutions across the nation - essentially answering spirituality based questions and attempting to assist those inmates who sought to explore and understand life from this organization's spiritual/religious worldview.

    Therefore, I am well aware of the wide differences in the way that various institutions are run. I agree with you, however, in that NONE of them are running anywhere near as well as they could (and should) and that the entire penal system is in need of a major overhaul. Which isn't going to happen anytime soon, I'm sorry to add.

    Daniel, you wrote:
    "Most institutions enforce a retinue of rules designed not with the purpose of running an orderly operation but with the intent to antagonize the inmates."

    My one question at this time is: Would you mind giving me some examples that you feel fall within this category at the institution where you are currently residing?

    I am simply wondering whether or not the rules in question are genuinely intended to "antagonize" the inmates, or rather, meant to impress upon their minds that there are many rules in a society that are expected to be obeyed regardless of the individual's personal opinion of those rules. I question if the intent is less to antagonize and more to instill a sense of discipline and adherence to socially accepted behavior.

    However, depending upon what you reply with (if you choose to provide me with examples), I might well change my mind and side with you.

    ~ Stephen
    "As a dog returns to his own vomit,
    so a fool repeats his folly."
    ~ Proverbs 26:11

  6. Hi Daniel-I have a master's degree in Psychology and believe you're absolutely right--that an evaluation of people both prior to sentencing and prior to release, might help identify the people most likely to respond well to rehabilitation/education/re-entry-- even cooperative prison time. It wouldn't be perfect--there are sociopaths who know exactly what any examiner would want to hear, and there is variability to events inside, but AT LEAST for first time offenders I believe it ought to be part of the protocol.

    I am NOT a fan of mandatory minimum sentences, because I am a believer is the power of circumstances. And I also happen to believe that drug use being illegal is a waste of a limited resource--not that drugs are a good idea, but I think there is a 'prohibition-like' criminal world created that would take away a lot of motivation for a lot of crime in ADDITION to punishing people for 'poor personal choices that affect no one else'

    I would like to see programs for better education and training. I'd also like to see better mental health treatment, as you rather repulsive example strikes me as somebody in need of THERAPY.

    I hope this forum helps you reach people able to make some noise about this--influence the decision makers. It's fairly amazing what networking can do when applied with a lot of enthusiasm.


    Much of what was said in the comments made on this post I address in parts II and III of this essay.

    Matthew Rush, prison is a business, regardless of privitization. State run facilities generate money in a number of ways. Besides the funds the state receives from federal sources for each inmate housed, they also "sell" space to other states, receive kick-backs from various private businesses adn fine us up to $12 for institutional charges. The kick-backs come from patronage we show a particular business. The more money inmates spend with a particular company, the more money that company gives to the institution. The better deal the private business offers the institution, the more business the institution tries to send that company. What ends up happening is the institution establishes policies forcing us to order from only one company. In turn, that company can charge whatever it wants, even double the normal retail price...I may be wrong but I believe that monopolizing is an illegal practice.

    Stephen, to answer your question regarding my statement that the institutions enforce unnecessary rules with the intent to antagonize, I can give examples. I will not do so here as I have addressed this in parts II and III of this essay. I will say that while I recognize a need for structure and many of the individuals in here are in need of structure, that structure must be developed within the individual. Many rules (Beds must be made by 8:00am) are inconsequential in the development of productive citizens. Many of these rules only serve to drive prisoners to become more manipulative in efforts to subvert the rules or to become dependant on the institution for structure. Once they leave the institution, structure is gone and they are incapable of functioning for themselves.

    Now, I will say that many rules are there for a reason and often it is not the rule but the way in which it is enforced. Many employees of the institutions try to push into negative responses, rather than trying to help us move away from negativity. They use the rules to antagonize or abuse their positions of power to dominate rather than maintain order.

    Hart, Circumstances do have the power to cause change. Mandatory minimum sentences lead those who change the most to serve lengthy sentences, no matter what they accomplish. At some point we must stop looking for criminals and labeling those who have made mistakes and start working to develop strong, productive individuals.

    I have addressed the need for education in future posts but I will note that therapy is an important part of change. Unfortunately, mental health issues are dealt with by pumping someone full of medication or by creating generic programs that don't address the individual. These programs are easily completed, without actually achieving anything.

    Even with what they do offer, there is very little to motivate many of the guys in here. Of course, it must begin within the individual. There must be a desire to change but if the individual cannot see the reasons to change, then why would he. For a lot of guys in here, the benefits of crime outweigh what they see as drawbacks (i.e. prison). If goals were stressed and guys could see actual accomplishment, more guys would be motivated to achieve.

    Direct correspondences can be sent to:

    Daniel Jackson #1182398
    Powhatan Correctional Center
    State Farm, VA 23160