I watch guys continually come and go. Pulling 6-18 month sentences in a lifelong string of short prison stints. The great revolving door of American incarceration. It bothers me to see men stuck in criminal mindsets because of a system failing miserably at rehabilitation.
Every day I hear men yelling at wives and girlfriends on the phone because they won’t or can’t send them money, all so they can continue chasing that next high. Drugs are plentiful here. These men don’t belong in prison they belong in drug treatment programs.
It’s politically easy to incarcerate and punish rather than treat and rehabilitate. Rehabilitation by it’s very nature requires compassion. Something that’s in short supply with today’s criminal justice thinking.
The direction of corrections in this country is influenced by a small number of organizations whose overarching objectives are profits. The main players in this arena are the ACA, JPay, CorrLinks, and GTL. Under the guidance and influence of these organizations states create policy and programs that frequently view prisoners as a resource. These organizations pitch services under the auspices of rehabilitation, states bite because of financial kickbacks, and costs are borne by the families of inmates and free world citizens who fall victim to future crimes committed by the previously incarcerated.
If you’re a prisoner taking time to evaluate and change your ways then your time will be difficult. However, if you treat your sentence lightly, unconcerned about changing your ways then your sentence will be easy. Why you ask? Because prison environments perfectly encourage this.
I see the shortcomings of the corrections system and how it fails to motivate prisoners to pursue constructive paths. I also see the things that corrections gets right. In Ohio, corrections is called the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC). Rehabilitation? This part should be designated with an asterisk (ODR*C) because rehabilitation needs correctional staff willing to help. It needs staff willing to show compassion and who are willing to give us prisoners a chance. We’re not asking you to like us. Just treat us as human beings and you might be surprised at how positively this is received.
Direction in corrections is borne at the top. Without a director willing to enact policy reform, from the parole board to the institutional level guiding corrections toward an emphasis on rehabilitation, none exists. In Ohio we have such a director, but reforming a biased and broken system requires more than just putting pen to paper and enacting policy. Once put into force it must be enforced. There has to be accountability. Without it nothing changes
We prisoners are given varied access to programs and services designed to help us become productive citizens. This is the case the country over. There’s no lack of resources. Yet recidivism rates remain unchanged. Why?
Somewhere along the way rehabilitation became lip service, a way to squeeze federal funding for programs that are halfheartedly implemented. Again, you need staff that care about the prisoners under their charge. You also need a parole board that’s unbiased and willing to objectively weigh and reward a prisoner’s rehabilitation.
In Ohio, as in a number of other states, prisoners fall under two types of sentencing laws, ‘old law’ and ‘new law’. New law inmates are typically serving determinate sentences (so called ‘truth in sentencing’) whereas old law prisoners are serving indeterminate sentences. Old law inmates must gain release by a parole board. When parole boards put politics, punishment and personal biases ahead of rehabilitation a message is sent to all other prisoners that says, ”we the parole board could care less about your rehabilitation, and the hearing you’ll receive will be a matter semantics.”
I was recently asked, ”What might motivate inmates to participate in a program or activity not required by the institution?” You know, believe it or not, most prisoners want to change, want to participate in a program that might help them. But most prisoners don’t know how or where to begin. They’ve lived improper lives for so long that transitioning to proper living is a challenge for them. Many grew up in poor or dysfunctional families and lacked key parental guidance. A high percentage of male and female prisoners were sexually abused as children. By the time they find themselves behind bars they’re jaded, untrusting of authority and angry.
Prisoners will participate in any positive program on their own prerogative without cajoling so long as staff running the program are viewed in a positive light. Getting inmates to view staff positively is one of the easiest things to do. Simply treat us as human beings. Treat us with dignity and respect and not as the enemy. There’s a stereotype that’s reinforced when staff don’t follow this, and the message conveyed to us inmates is “We the staff hate you and you should not trust us.”
“What might motivate inmates to participate in a program or activity not required by the institution” you ask? At nearly every institution there’s a small handful of staff that go out of their way to torment the inmates. They yell at us, berate us, lie on incident reports, fabricate facts on inmate disciplinary reports, intentionally toss your cell. And these bad staff are protected by a small circle of unprofessional brass. When unprofessional staff are allowed to operate with impunity it destroys the efforts of all other staff who truly care and believe in the rehabilitation mandate.
As I said earlier, there has to be accountability to any reform effort otherwise they are for naught. Unprofessional staff must be rooted out, disciplined and discouraged by superiors. Inmates will see this. They’ll conclude that staff are here to help, and that they are not the enemy. This simple effort alone will motivate inmates to participate in programs or activities not required by the institution.
I correspond with inmates nationwide, and I’m dumbfounded at how kind, helpful and trusted staff are viewed by prisoners in places like Colorado and Wisconsin. It’s in stark contrast to how prisoners view staff at my facility. Why is this? What are their staff doing that ours aren’t?
“What might motivate inmates to participate in a program or activity not required by the institution?” Offer them an inter institutional incentive. Allow them an extra privilege for their participation such as an extra monthly visit, an extra food or sundry package for the year or the ability to choose one’s bunkmate. There are many possibilities. We’re not a mysterious bunch, we will respond positively to sincere offerings of privilege.
Rehabilitation is about more than just programs. It’s about an entire picture and experience for prisoners. It’s about getting inmates to see and understand that their perception of authority is unfounded. That staff are not the enemy. This in turn translates into positive thought processes which then translate into positive actions.
The cycle of recidivism is a cycle until it’s not. It’s a cycle that’s broken through rehabilitation, and the key to rehabilitation rests with staff. It all starts here behind these walls.
Christopher (Ma.C.I.) (OH)
If you know someone who works in corrections please share this post with them. They work a tough job, and most prisoners are grateful for their help.