For those who don't know, I worked for for almost ten years in different parts of the penal system as a Mental Health/Substance Abuse Counselor & Probation Officer & Manager of a Half-way House for Former Offenders. My favorite period was working with a program designed to target three-time (or plus) felons who were about to hit the adult system. It was funded and recognized for its effectiveness by the Clinton Administration.
Suffice it to say, I have strong opinions about what works and doesn't work with offenders. Today I came across this reputable study from Pew http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/news with the startling, but not surprising finding that "Four in 10 Offenders Return to Prison Within Three Years." This costs our country talent, money and is a strain on our economy. Again from Pew, "State corrections spending, driven almost entirely by prison expenditures, has quadrupled over the past two decades, making it the second fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid. Total state spending on corrections today is more than $50 billion a year."
I've heard many offenders long for the 3 squares and predictability of prison. The rules are clear, the lines drawn are easy to locate and everyone knows that the routine of prison life will wear down the most rebellious sort. I'm not saying prison is great and that former offenders want to be there...simply pointing out that the outside world is full of choices and influences and uncertainty that can be overwhelming to those coming back in...especially in a terrible economy.
Many of these folks have mental health and substance abuse issues that are not able to be sufficiently addressed within prison walls. There is very little support for programs designed for offenders and not enough research into programs that are effective. And it is true that many of them have no desire to pursue a "straight" life...as their identities is so closely tied to being a "thug." It is extremely difficult to effectively challenge a lifetime of negative lessons.
It seems no one cares about prison reform. No politicians are talking about the Prison Industrial Complex or if privatization works. There is no serious discussion of a dismantling of the wasteful and egregious "War on Drugs." Only those with a relative or friend locked up know what it is about...unless you are one of the few, the brave, the fearless ones who wants to help those society deems too problematic to acknowledge.
It is lonely being an advocate for prison reform. Like being a defense attorney, the people you represent can be dishonest cons who have caused real damage to others--and yet, someone must try to get their attention.
My last job in this arena was co-facilitating a therapy group twice a week with Domestic Violence offenders who were court-ordered to therapy following a conviction. Needless to say, they were a tough group. My co-facilitator was an amazing man named David (RIP sweet Prince) and the two of us reached far into the darkness with these men. After many weeks of intensive work, it seemed as if only one man out of thirteen showed any real progress.
Around this same time, I discovered I was pregnant with my first child. I was not married and was already feeling overwhelming worry about how to be a good mother. One night during group, I looked around at the men and realized that in my head I was condemning all of them. I simply did not want my child to ever know men like this. My resignation followed soon after. You cannot help people that you loathe.
And yet, I still feel strongly that even though I found the point (after many years in the field) where I could no longer go...those behind bars still garner my solidarity from afar. Prisons should not be an extension of subsidized housing. Why is Lady Justice only seeing a certain type of crime? Where is the walk of shame, complete with handcuffs for all the scumbags who deceived people into buying homes they couldn't afford, with tricky mortgages? Why are the bankers not being chased by cops over fences on television?
If rich, white guys who perpetrated fraud at global level were stuffing the prisons...do you think the statistics would change? Would that be enough for Americans to pay attention?