11/19/2014 12:10 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Hard Time: Lessons From a Maximum-Security Prison

I first went to prison a year ago. I left the city I was familiar with, took a winding drive through faded towns, passed diners I imagined once saw better days, passed the final gas station.

I arrived at a maximum-security prison in a corner of New York state. It was an imposing fortress of concrete, loops of barbed wire, and layers of fencing, and corridors upon corridors divided by sliding metal doors, which locked in over 2,000 men, most of them serving sentences of 25 years to life.

In the entranceway, a long line of women slowly shuffled forward, each laden with grocery bags stuffed with potato chips and other processed snacks. Guards with wooden batons holstered at their hips, thumbs hooked into their belts, strolled about. The women were waiting for prison officials to inspect their food items and then transfer them to prisoners who missed the taste of what were now, to them, luxuries. Those behind bars here were likely the husbands, boyfriends, fathers, sons, or brothers of those patiently waiting in line.

It was impossible not to notice that every woman in line was a woman of color.

When I tell the guards I'm a law school student, they look confused. What is she doing here?

I'm with a small delegation of other Yale students, participating in a seminar twice a month that brings together law students and convicted felons to break down communication barriers between those inside and outside of prison.

This prison is not that different from other big prisons across America, built on the outskirts of small towns, typically with high rates of unemployment. Since the 1980s, the majority of prisons in America have been built in depressed, rural areas in an attempt to create jobs and spur growth. These areas are also predominantly white; as a consequence, guards who are primarily white watch over prisoners who are primarily minorities.

The guards told me much the same story: they sacrifice their lives to working in prison so that their children won't have to. "I drive exactly 48 miles to work and back every day to pay for my son to go to college, so he won't ever work here," one male guard said. "I know it's a 48-mile drive because I dread going to work, and I can't wait to get home."

I asked some of the guards what they thought of the prisoners. "Some of them just need to go home," said one. "But some of them are "baby rapers" -- they deserve to be here." Another declared: "We always have to watch our backs, because you never know when violence will break out, and you can never be too careful." Yet another hardened guard warned me: "Never tell anyone your full name, where you live, or any other identifying information about yourself. You don't want convicted felons to find you when they get out."

I was intimidated before I even entered the cellblocks.

My classmates and I had to go through the metal detector. The underwire in my bra set it off. I was directed towards a nearby broom closet, where I removed my bra from underneath my thick sweater. I placed it in a brown paper bag, and reemerged to hand it to a guard. The second time through, shoulders hunched, I passed. I was allowed back in the closet to put my bra back on.

Next, we went through a series of metal doors. Each opened before me only after the ones behind me clanged shut.

Yellow lines down the center divided the hallways like roadways, with stop signs at each intersection.

"NO TALKING," demanded the signs on the walls.

Even when only one or two guards were in sight, there was an overwhelming sense of control.

We reached the prison block for educational programs. I found myself in a room full of prisoners. All wore the standard one-color prison uniform. Scars and tattoos snaked around their necks and arms.

These men greeted me with warm smiles and friendly handshakes.

I was embarrassed to think that if I had been on the street and seen them, I probably would have been intimidated and crossed to the other side.

Conversation flowed and laughter came easily as they peppered us with questions.

What is it like to live on your own, and to do your own laundry? What is it like to go to a bar? What is it like to own a cell phone? What is Facebook like?

I learned most of these men had been incarcerated since they were as young as 17-years-old, and had been sentenced as adults. They hadn't done many of the mundane daily things that I did without a second thought, but they had also lived through much more than I had.

They spoke of growing up in public housing in Harlem, the Bronx, or Queens, where violence was the default way of resolving issues, and where they were at once over-policed and under-protected. Even before their teenage years, they took for granted that, in all likelihood, they would spend some time in jail. After all, most men in their community they knew had.

Despite the challenges the prisoners still faced, I found a sense of resilience. Curious and hard working, most of them had completed their high school equivalencies in prison, and they were studying, among other courses, business, paralegal skills, creative writing, and communication skills. One man had learned to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Another spoke of his plans to start a charity and counseling program for at-risk youth when he got out. A third man described the lawsuit he was filing in federal court to challenge what he perceived as the unconstitutional vagueness of the felony statute he had been charged under.

"Do you want to go home?" I asked the men.

Only about half raised their hands. They knew all too well the challenges they will likely face upon release because of their status as convicted felons: they may struggle to make ends meet without food stamps or temporary assistance benefits; they might be ineligible for public housing, and may face homelessness; they could be denied the right to vote; and they will have great difficulty finding a job. As a condition of their parole, they could be prohibited from associating with previously convicted felons, denying them the support of friendships they made and relied on while in prison.

As a society, we have repeatedly let all such individuals down.

First, we have perpetuated the social and economic inequality that disproportionately disadvantages those who are impoverished, or minorities, or both. In part due to the legacy of segregation and other racially discriminatory policies, African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be living in poverty, and to be targeted by more aggressive policing tactics. A white person or anyone growing up in the middle-class is much less likely to fall under the supervision of the criminal justice system. According to the NAACP, in 2008, African Americans and Hispanics, who accounted for about 25 percent of the American population, comprised 58 percent of all prisoners in the U.S. If these two groups were incarcerated at the same rate as white Americans, the U.S. prison and jail populations would be cut in half. These patterns partly explain why the U.S. has more persons in prison than any other country in the world, ahead of China and Russia in absolute and per capita terms.

Second, we have substituted prisons for mental hospitals. Instead of treating people with mental illnesses, we lock them up and punish them. A 2014 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that America's prisons hold more than 10 times as many mentally ill people than its mental hospitals do. While in prison, individuals are unable to access the mental health services they need, and many aspects of incarceration only worsen their mental health problems.

Third, we impose obstacles and deny ex-felons the support they most need upon re-entering society, in rehabilitation programs and social services. By doing so, we actually make it more likely they will commit another crime, or harm themselves. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about two-thirds of those released from prison will reoffend within three years of their release. Recently released prisoners are at a much higher risk of suicide or drug overdose compared to the general population.

These three failures deny young men of color, and their families, an equal shot at success available to other Americans.

This past summer, while working in the Harlem Community Law Office of New York City's Legal Aid Society, I witnessed some of these consequences firsthand. My job was to sort out problems with access to public benefits, including helping those whose applications for welfare had been unjustly denied or whose benefits had been erroneously terminated. All of my clients were women of color. Almost all were single mothers struggling to provide for their families. The men who had been in their lives were incarcerated. The only child support those men could pay was drawn from what they earned from prison labour, at 12 cents to $1.15 an hour. The women I represented this summer could have been the very same women I saw struggling to visit their family members in prison on weekends.

At my most recent bi-monthly session at the maximum-security prison, the group of prisoners spoke of their struggles to parent from within the prison walls. Some said they felt their children were making bad decisions, and they didn't know how to stop them from doing so. They concluded it was best to act as a listener rather than an instructor. I could tell that they were deeply dissatisfied that this was all they could do.

Republicans argue that punitive sentences are essential to a tough-on-crime approach that keeps our streets safe.

I see building stronger communities with adequate support mechanisms, not building stronger prisons, as the path to a safer society.

The average annual cost of incarcerating one person in a maximum-security facility is upwards of $33,000. Do we want to spend $33,000 a year to separate a man from his family, to leave his children fatherless, and to subject him to a thousand indignities that are focused more on punishment than on rehabilitation? In punishing this man, we rob his family of his presence and support. We rob him of the very services that would make it less likely he would re-offend upon release. We fracture communities and ultimately leave them more dangerous.

Surely we could better keep our streets safe by using some of the millions we spend on prisons on socioeconomic policies and programs that reduce inequality, promote education, and make available more mental health services, putting more of an emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation, rather than punishment.

Every two weeks, I go back to the maximum-security prison. With each visit, the men affirm to me that individuals are so much more than a set of legal problems; more than just victims of circumstances beyond their control; more than a single wrongful act, and more than innately good or bad.

I don't expect people to take my word about this. Instead, people should see for themselves.

See the disproportionate effect mandatory minimum sentences, harsh parole policies, and three-strike rules have had on already marginalized communities. See how dehumanizing the prison experience is, for guards and prisoners alike. Understand the world from another lived reality and seriously reflect on the actual on-the-ground consequences of the large-scale policy issues we consider so abstractly.

If every American could visit a prison, they might better see why we need to change this broken system.