Changing Our Prison Systems Will Take a Little Bit of Intelligence

12/07/2007 06:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was raining in Seattle last Friday. I spent most of the gloomy afternoon in one of Seattle's maximum security Federal Prisons. A good friend of mine has been relocated there for fraud. Truthfully, you might say she is actually in prison for not learning how to discriminate when she chose her husband. She married the wrong man. Her spouse ended up to be an addict with a wicked mean streak. When she finally realized it, he refused to get help for his addiction. So, she divorced him. He decided to go after her.

I am pissed that my government wasted my tax dollars and put her into prison on a first offense; on a loan that she had already paid back, forged signature or not. A federal sentence costs taxpayers $24,000 - $30,000 per year. Wow! Not only is she a great candidate for an ankle bracelet because she would never harm anyone, but she is needed at home to raise her kids. It would also be much cheaper for the state (and you and I) to keep her working and under house arrest. Instead, she was incarcerated and sent to a prison outside of California due to overcrowding in the local prison. What was so puzzling about her assignment was that when she arrived in Seattle, she spent the first few weeks on the floor because they lacked a bed for her in this "less-crowded" prison.

The best gift that this whole fiasco created for my friend was a closer relationship to her first husband, the father of her kids, and his current wife. Both parents, actually all 3 parents, have joined together with a mutual allegiance to raise these kids. My girlfriend said that this closer relationship and shared commitment has been worth every second spent in prison.

Sometimes I get depressed over the state of our country; immigration, gun control, and our prison systems, to mention a few. Common sense has been lost, facts have been replaced by a Wikipedia kind of "Truthiness" that Steve Colbert has coined, and I wonder, will our country continue to move in the wrong direction? Is there any government official who can lift the chains of bureaucracy and change what is not working? Do we ever use common sense anymore when making decisions? Or, are we all just crew members on the Titanic, doing our jobs without questions as the ship unnoticeably inches closer and closer to the iceberg?

Lastly, I keep thinking "there have got to be more intelligent human beings out there!" Somewhere? Anywhere?

I am but a naïve optimist, who continues to look for ways to make the world a better place. You might be laughing already. Does this woman still believe that we can change the world? Yes, I do. I think of people all the time who have changed the world. All it takes is one of us.

So how can we begin to change our prison systems? One way is this: get drug addicts into rehabilitation and out of our prisons. As I mentioned earlier, we spend a lot of money per inmate to keep them locked up. There is not much of an education program and there are barely any rehab programs, if any at all. Why do we waste our tax dollars putting drug addicts in prison? Would it not make more sense to provide the money for a national rehab program?

It's not like you can't get drugs in prison. You can get drugs anywhere, in any prison in this country. As long as there is one remaining orifice on the human body, it is impossible to stop the flow of drugs. The ingenuity of a desperate addict is quite amazing. Imagine the focus and tenacity of creating a powder to replace the glue on the back of an envelope. Gees, put these people to work and take advantage of their tenacity in a positive way.

Drugs also become a large part of the currency in prison. For an inmate to have currency in prison is critical; it gives them power and control. Sigh, do human desires ever change? Will culture and society continuously fail because of greed and power? The desire for these wants never change, they just move to another location.

The same friend in prison volunteered to teach her fellow inmates how to create a resume. At first these convicted drug addicts would say, "We don't have any experience or qualifications." At the end of the class, their resumes looked like this:


Associate experienced in sales, marketing and customer service looking for the right opportunity. Duties included creating and developing a client list, development and execution of the marketing plan, sales and distribution of product. Responsible for overseeing quality control.

I laughed till my sides ached when she told me this story. We were sitting across from each other with a plastic table in between us. If you knew her, you would appreciate her "can do" attitude. Only she would find a way to help these women turn their shadowy past into acceptable material for a resume.

So why do we put drug addicts in prison? Here is what happens when we confine people who are addicted to drugs: they get in, they get out, and they inevitably return. I was waiting outside the security area and met a mother who had a daughter inside the walls. At first she didn't tell me that her daughter was there, but after we talked she chose to share her story. The mother told me that after her daughter's second incarceration for drug addiction, she went to court and faced off with the judge. "I don't know why they didn't arrest me because I was yelling at the judge. I told him, 'You might as well throw away the key if you can't get her rehabilitation.'" That's all we're doing by incarcerating them anyway. The judge made sure her daughter received rehab.

Think about it, for each person per year that we incarcerate, we are spending almost as much to house them as it would cost per person to pay off the national debt. Does this make sense?

Worse, there are whole groups of families in prison for drug use. Yes, whole families. There are twelve year olds behind bars, who use heroine for the first time with big sister, or worse, mom and dad. How do we stop this cycle? Why don't we address the problem of drug abuse instead of nurturing the addiction and the disease? Isn't this where common sense comes in?

I went to a "holding cell" in San Mateo County, California a few months back. I visited the jail with my two friends and co-authors of the book This Is Not the Life I Ordered. We had hoped to help these women start their own "Kitchen Table Groups" in prison.

This holding cell that we visited is a temporary prison facility for inmates before they move on to a permanent location. Due to overcrowding, many of these women never make it to a permanent facility. In the temporary facilities there are usually less services on site. The guards and staff had to rouse the women from bed to meet with us. It was noon. These women had no access to educational programs or drug rehab programs. There were no books, paper, or writing utensils. There was only a broken stationary bicycle in the corner of the meeting room.

What do these women have to look forward to? How can we let their minds rot away? Can this truly be helpful for society long term? There was nothing in the facility to HELP these women better themselves. NOTHING. So, they slept their days away.

"Why," you might ask, "should one care?" Because if we don't start to change the way we think, the way we treat addicts, they will spend the rest of their lives in prison. At OUR expense.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are currently 2,245,189 prisoners held in Federal, State or local prisons. According the The New York Times, "one in every 31 adults in the United States was in prison, in jail or on supervised release at the end of last year.

Those in prison for drug offenses include those listed for possession, manufacturing, trafficking, and other drug offenses. Other addiction statistics are:

* In 1999 an estimated 721,500 State and Federal prisoners were parents to 1,498,800 children under age 18.
* 22% of all minor children with a parent in prison were under 5 years old.
* Prior to admission, less than half of the parents in State prison reported living with their children -- 44% of fathers, 64% of mothers.

Startling statistics. So what do we do? First thing we do is figure out what programs should be available in our existing prisons. Let's create a national rehabilitation program. If there is no rehab program available to people in prison, they should not be sent there. What is the point? Instead, an outside rehab program is needed to stop people from spinning through the revolving door.

It is not so difficult to change the way you think. All it takes is some passion, some commitment, and a little common sense to do so. I doubt if your have heard of Dr. Kiran Bedi. Dr. Bedi is a great example of: "The Power of One". I first heard about her from my other co-author, Deborah Collins Stephens. You can read more about Dr. Bedi here, or in the same book that I mentioned earlier. She was the first woman to ever join the elite Indian Police Service. After joining the police, she was sent to the Tihar Prison in Delhi. One of the most corrupt and violent institutions in India. , She managed to transform this hell-hole into a model prison by teaching the inmates how to meditate. She used her compassion, common sense and some "out of the box" thinking to change how the prison functioned. The rest is history.

I always ask myself, what can I do about a situation? How can I change it? We can all do something very easy. GET OUT AND VOTE. Use your voice, give your opinion, and start talking about prison issues. We can't fix problems that we don't discuss. Do your homework. Then, get out and vote. If we all realized how much impact we still have when we exercise our right to vote, we can still change this country.

There are many rehabilitation centers around the country. We can use the money designated for inmate incarcerations and apply the money towards ridding them of their addictions. We should be able to follow their progress closely and get them on the right track. Of course, this is not always easy, but it can be done.

Americans who are re-incarcerated for drug issues stay in prison for a long time. Imagine how much money we would save if we looked at alternatives to tossing them into a jail cell. Think about what these decisions do to the families of those incarcerated. Just think of the roughly 1.5 million kids who might have a better chance at stability with their parents going through rehabilitation and staying at home.

Our national debt grows at 1 million dollars a minute: According to the Associated Press, this means "almost $30,000 in debt for each human being in America". This includes infants. Prison population increases every year, but let's assume the current prison population is 2.5 million (2006 average). Now let's take $25,000 a year as the cost to incarcerate a drug offender. If I multiply 2.5 million by $25,000 per inmate, the total cost is 62 billion five hundred million dollars per year.

Imagine if we redirected the money spent on incarceration and instead used those dollars to cure drug addiction. Imagine if our prison system found a more effective way to help people to get off drugs, to educate them and train them to become contributing members of society. Perhaps we might have a bit of capital left over to pay down our national debt.

We need to make the time to change things in our country. If we don't start rehabilitating drug addicts before they get out of prison, or sending them for rehab before they get locked away, then that mom I met in Seattle will be right: we might as well throw away the key. Come to think of it, if we don't hold out hope that we can still change the world, we might as well join them in the prison cell.