Monday, June 15, 2015

Why Prison Reform Matters, and Why Most People Think It Doesn't

In this age of people falsifying their resumé or their life story (talking to you, Rachel Dolezal), some of you will be surprised to learn that I used to be a prison guard.  It's true. In 1970, when I was pursuing a master's degree in counseling, I spent a few months working at the Women's Reformatory in Framingham, Mass.  It was quite a surreal experience. The warden was very popular and widely regarded as a progressive, but she seemed stuck in the 1950s when it came to how to "cure" criminality in women. One of her rules was to mandate that the women wear dresses and use makeup, so that they could learn to be more feminine.  She also seemed to believe (and in fairness, many people back then still believed this) that female prisoners should become adept at sewing-- one of the few jobs for the women was making flags.

One of the prisoners, and I still remember her, was built very much like a guy.  In fact, she wanted to be treated like a stereotypical male, and she prided herself on being "tough."  Today, perhaps she might have an opportunity to have female-to-male gender reassignment and maybe she would have finally gained acceptance as a man; but back then, such options were few, especially for anyone in prison.  She really disliked the rule about lipstick and dresses, but the choice was not hers to make.  (To be honest, although I admit to not being an expert in criminology, I empathized with her:  I was considered a "normal" female, yet I too objected to the wearing dresses and using lipstick rule.  It just didn't seem to me that such rules addressed why women ended up breaking the law.)

The women I encountered at the prison were not saints, of course.  Several were doing time for armed robbery or manslaughter; some had been found guilty of child abuse. Many, if not most, had been addicted to drugs or alcohol and that was one key reason they committed crimes. An equal number were involved with a guy who was also addicted, or who had a criminal background.  The prison had some classes, but nothing that would lead to a career or a good-paying job on the outside.  And yet, compared to some prisons, this one was relatively enlightened, with inmates living in "cottages" rather than cells, unless they broke the rules.  Then, their punishment was to be sent to "the hole," better known as solitary confinement. Some prisoners were sent there often; others knew how to avoid it.

I wasn't cut out to be a guard, I must confess.  I found myself wanting to help the prisoners.  No, not by giving them hacksaws or smuggling in contraband.  I wanted to counsel them-- there weren't a lot of counselors or psychologists there, as I recall.  And I absolutely wanted to advise them, so that perhaps they wouldn't make the same mistakes in the future.  Sometimes, I sang folk songs with them (for obvious reasons, Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" was a big favorite).  Ultimately, the warden and I mutually agreed that I'd be better off working somewhere else.  She was right-- my heart was always in radio.  And yet, I never forgot the prisons. While I was in Cleveland at WMMS-FM, I became the local chair of the ACLU's Prisoners Rights Project, and I worked to help set up at least one prison radio station, in Mansfield OH.  I also visited prisoners who heard me on the air and wrote to me.

Some people thought that was a strange thing to do-- I mean, the common wisdom was (and for some people, still is) that prisoners cannot change; once a criminal, always a criminal.  Back then, first offenders were regularly incarcerated with hardened criminals.  There was little if any counseling available, few classes they could take-- yes, I understand that some prisoners would not have been willing to go to counseling, nor would they have taken any classes, but it always seemed counter-productive to just give up on them, especially the younger ones.  That prison radio station was really popular; prison newspapers are too, even though such publications are frequently censored. But giving the inmates a change to be creative in a positive way, whether through classes or job skills courses, or prison media, always seemed sensible.  After all, those first offenders were usually going to be paroled; and with no new skills, and a society that rarely gave them any opportunities, of course they ended up back in jail again.  It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

Today, we are still in a "tough on crime" era.  For many, especially politicians running for office, the prisons make an easy target.  Many politicians deny that rehabilitation is necessary, since "everyone" knows criminals will never change.  The best strategy, they say, is to lock them up and throw away the key; make sure the conditions are especially harsh, since that's what they all deserve.  And if they do get out, keep on punishing them:  even take away their right to vote after they've served their sentence.  Remind them of their criminal past:  don't help them get a job, don't give them a chance of any kind.  And finally, make sure you blame them when they go back to prison, even though you did absolutely nothing to change the way that story unfolded.

Don't misunderstand me. There are some criminals who do deserve harsh punishment, and who probably won't ever become productive members of society.  Even when I was a guard, I met inmates who were manipulative and untrustworthy. (But truthfully, I met other guards who fit the same description.)  Anyway, even today, I continue to believe that juvenile offenders (especially first offenders) do not benefit from harsh and inhumane treatment. It doesn't teach them a lesson, unless the lesson is to hate society even more.   I am not saying we should "coddle" them, but there has to be a middle ground between coddling and brutalizing.  For example, I am troubled that prisons are allowed to operate with little oversight-- reporters can't see what is going on, and often, even family members, lawyers, and advocates are denied access. As a result, when a young offender is assaulted (whether by other prisoners or by sadistic guards), it rarely if ever makes the news; when a prisoner awaiting trial is denied needed medical assistance, that too rarely makes the news.  And as more prisons outsource medical care to private organizations, there is even an incentive to deny proper care-- it saves money, and besides, they're just prisoners and they can't expect good treatment. 

There are a few organizations that advocate for prison reform-- one newer advocacy group that I like is the Marshall Project (  But the voices of reform are usually drowned out by the voices demanding that prisons continue to treat all inmates the same, the voices that insist that only punishment works and that the worst thing is to be "soft on crime."  This attitude seems short-sighted and frankly, it seems unwise. As I said earlier, one day, many of these inmates will get out. If we give them no opportunity to change for the better, we shouldn't be surprised if they never do.

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