When I was 23, in 1987, Ronald Regan presided over the White House and I began serving my term in the Big House. I had been involved in the transport of cocaine. I was guilty, and I was stupid. I was a kid in search of easy money; I was never violent, never carried a gun, and had no history of criminal activity. I was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Shortly thereafter, George H. W. Bush was elected president, promising a 'kinder, gentler America.' As a new prisoner, this promise made me optimistic, even as those around me laughed at my naivete toward politics. They were right: Bush was speaking to citizens outside the fence, promising ever-harsher punishments to the growing underclass inside.
At the time, I was working towards my bachelors' degree, reading the Bible every day, and trying to insulate my family from the shame caused by my actions. I was taking every possible precaution to maintain a good behavioral record that would allow for my release after only 26 years. But as politician after politician came to office promising to make America a kinder, gentler place, I saw higher walls, more razor wire, fewer classes, and more repeat offenders. For all the prisoners like me, striving for redemption, there always seemed to be another 'Willie Horton' helping to justify the increase of the Bureau of Prisons annual budget by several billion dollars.
Now I'm 46, and despite my not having a history of violence, weapons, or prior confinement, I've been a prisoner for half of my life. I expect to serve a few more years before release, and I don't expect to see meaningful prison reform before the expiration of my sentence. Nevertheless, experience and observations of living as a prisoner compel me to speak out on the reasons why more citizens should call for prison reform legislation.
I spent my first 15 years in prison earning undergraduate and graduate degrees before new directives from the Bureau of Prisons prohibited my pursuit of further formal education. I then turned to writing, attempting to educate the public and my fellow prisoners about the realities of life on the inside and the methods people can use to overcome long-term hardship. I have spent half of my life defying the system through behavior that those outside of prison call 'good' -- the pursuit of education and the reluctance to abandon hope. I feel that I have earned my right to be free in society. I have accomplished this through a level of initiative and obstinance that many prisoners find hard to understand, and I am also blessed with family and friends who take the time and energy to sympathize with and assist me. But the hundreds of thousands of others entering the system each year are encountering more and more crowded and oppressive conditions and far fewer opportunities for rehabilitation and positive growth than ever before.
Research from credible organizations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts -- and even the U.S. Senate -- report alarming statistics concerning America's prison system. We've locked up more than 2.3 million people in American prisons or jails. That deplorable number represents more prisoners per capita than any other nation on earth! Taxpayers spend nearly $60 billion every year to warehouse their fellow citizens. The continuous expansion of prison budgets has resulted in the diversion of funds from education, health care, and environmental preservation; the continuous expansion of the U.S. prison population has resulted in a need for increased security instead of anti-recidivism programs. And what does society receive in return for its colossal expenditures on prisons? The data shows that two of every three people return to confinement after release. Our prisons have grown into superior training grounds for failure -- unless "prisonization" is the goal. Every day as I teach other prisoners how to read, write, and find employment on the outside, I know that thousands more are spending years in prison learning how to hide, transport, and sell drugs, how to manufacture crude weaponry, and how to acclimate others into a nihilist cycle of violence, substance abuse, and other criminal behavior.
As a federal prisoner at the minimum-security camp in Taft, California, I participate in a youth outreach program where, under staff supervision, I speak to high school students about the consequences of criminal behavior. In giving my presentation I always ask the students how many have family members in prison. I'm overwhelmed with the number of hands that shoot up when I ask that question! Citizens should understand that our massive prison population influences everyone's quality of life and has ancillary consequences for millions of children, spouses, and parents. Prisons have become mainstream, significantly decreasing the stigma associated with confinement.
Prominent outsiders such as Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court claim that America incarcerates too many people for far too long. In a speech to students at Pepperdine University earlier this year, Justice Kennedy blamed the prison lobby for propping up the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that keep so many confined. He recognized that although the Constitution did not prohibit incarceration on such a massive scale, policies that encourage penal warehousing of such magnitude are inconsistent with the aspirations of our society. (If you're looking for evidence of this inconsistency, try this HuffPost article about how America incarcerates more black people than it ever enslaved.)
Certainly, society must respond to criminals who prey upon citizens, and long-term confinement is appropriate for some offenders. But credible data shows that the majority of people locked up serve multiple years (or decades) for nonviolent drug offenses. By locking so many offenders in prison for lengthy terms, our society makes poor use of its criminal justice system's limited resources.
However, even those travesties pale in comparison to the mere fact that, once in the system, prisoners have few opportunities to improve their lives. In fact, they're actively discouraged from doing so!
The fundamental flaw within our prison system is that it lacks a mechanism that would inspire prisoners to work toward earning freedom. Judges impose sentences that do not offer possibility for parole and therefore extinguish hope. Taxpayers fund warehouses for millions of people, who in turn become increasingly alienated from law-abiding society. As the months turn into years, and the years turn into decades, loved ones desert the imprisoned. Many prisoners become further entrenched in criminal subcultures, as evidenced by the massive proliferation of prison and street gangs over the past 20 years. Rather than contributing to safer communities, the unrestrained spread of long-term imprisonment just conditions more people for further failure.
Prison reforms must introduce a more enlightened approach and intelligently designed system. The federal system that exists today does not distinguish between prisoners who waste their sentences from those who work toward reconciling with society. My observations and research suggest that policies based on punishment and societal revenge rather than on rehabilitation and opportunities to redeem for misdeeds represent the primary reason that 500,000 of the 700,000 prisoners who return to American communities each year will return to confinement after inflicting further violence upon society. Too many prisoners conclude their terms with finely-honed skills necessary to survive in prison which are inimical to legal and social success "outside."
I know that I have rehabilitated myself, in the eyes of my family, myself, and God. Through the decades, as politicians and BOP officials decreased my opportunities for education and involvement with the outside word, I persevered. I have earned a BA, an MA, most of a PhD, and have published several books. I won't have to watch too many more presidents promise me a kinder, gentler America. But I'm a rare case. Until we can make prisoner rehabilitation and redemption real and institutional, we'll just be teaching people how to be comfortable in prison, and they'll keep coming back for longer and longer.
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