Criminal Justice & the Prison System: Inside Out

I believe in our system of governance. I think we have the best system in the world, but it has its flaws and shortcomings. All systems do. With regard to the American criminal justice system there are terrible flaws and inefficiencies. I’d venture as far as to say that the system is broken in that it disproportionately punishes the poor and rewards the wealthy. In the United States if you have money and you break the law you are in very good shape. Your probability of being punished is very low for money buys the best lawyers and influence.

Once incarcerated punishment is front and center. We incarcerate more citizens than any other country in the world. Countries with populations 4X larger than ours incarcerate less people. There’s something wrong with this picture.

In this country incarceration has become big business. There’s incentive to keep prisoners imprisoned rather than to release and recognize one’s rehabilitation. It’s a sad state of affairs when parole boards are more concerned with politics than rehabilitation. In my state old law parole board prisoners routinely serve more time than terrorists in Europe. It doesn’t matter if you are rehabilitated.

Parole boards aside, rehabilitation is the best way to break the cycle of crime. I speak from experience. I see what corrections gets right and what it gets wrong. Most importantly I know what works and what doesn’t, and I know how the approach to rehabilitation can be fixed or improved upon. Although I’m a prisoner, I do believe in the entire criminal justice process however flawed it may be.

My web master Dr. Scott Quimby, Ph.D. spent 21 years as a clinical psychologist amongst juvenile and adult prisoners. He assisted them through a range of mental health issues from drug and alcohol addiction to antisocial and criminal attitude behaviors and is uniquely qualified to address the issue of rehabilitation. I too am qualified for I have spent a lifetime behind bars interacting with prisoners. He and I are coauthoring a book together on rehabilitation and corrections, where he provides an outsider’s view and I provide an insider’s view of rehabilitation and today’s correctional practices. Thus the title ”Criminal Justice & the Prison System: Inside Out.”

The book we’re writing aims to bring forth a deeper understanding of rehabilitation and corrections than what is currently available in the literature. We discuss what was, what is, and what will be while also providing solutions to the rehabilitation question. Something that, in my opinion, could be improved upon.

As a prisoner I’ve spent a lot of time considering my life and my experience. Prison has humbled me. It has led me to an understanding and appreciation for family and life and it has clarified my life priorities. For all it’s trials and tribulations, I haven’t allowed incarceration to be a negative force in my life.

Everyone experiences incarceration differently. I’ve written about it in this blog for years now. The differences amongst male and female prisoners is evident in my ongoing series ”The Lives of Women Behind Bars” which can be found in the category of the same name. The first of 8 parts in this series went up on April 20, 2020 with each part containing essays or thoughts from female prisoners. You’ll also discover these differences in the new multi part series ”Sugar & Spice” which also can be found in the category of the same name. I posted the first part in this series on 9/29/21.

Despite differences there’s one thing prisoners experience similarly and that is rehabilitation. This process of personal change is often encouraged and facilitated by the very staff tasked to oversee those under their charge. From guards to counselors to general staff, their impact upon prisoners is key to assisting them to ultimately help themselves. It’s also the basis behind today’s Core Correctional Practices and modern American correctional thinking. The following excerpts are from our forthcoming book Criminal Justice & the Prison System: Inside Out.

Rehabilitation

Today’s modern approach to rehabilitating prisoners is effective when staff are on board with these efforts. Leadership plays an crucial role in this process and it starts with the director of prisons. Directors can effect large degrees of change, and subordinates will follow policy if leadership has done a good job of messaging vision and expectations.

A conversation I recently had with a staffer revealed that he thinks poorly of the current director’s vision and push for rehabilitation. Since this staffer is a veteran employee, I asked him what he thought of the previous director, for the previous director pursued a similar policy path. The response I received was less than flattering. This employee does not believe in trying to rehabilitate prisoners. What did this tell me? It told me that this staffer wasn’t in line with the vision of leadership. It told me that leadership has done a poor job of messaging to subordinates. Both of these directors pursued a policy based around rehabilitation, something that the governor tasked them with.

Over the years I’ve seen how efforts at rehabilitation have coalesced. For prisoners rehabilitation isn’t about a handful of programs or special housing units dedicated to re entry efforts, rather rehabilitation is a total immersive institutional experience that also includes those aspects…

My state is progressive. Prisoners have access to electronic devices and services that prisoners is many states don’t. It’s all part of a comprehensive effort to guide offenders toward rehabilitation. This wasn’t always so. When I began my time the most high tech item we were cassette players and mustache trimmers. Today Ohio prisoners have personal tablets and access to a host of electronic services.

The thinking behind allowing prisoners access to these services is that if prisoners become familiar with tech as part of a comprehensive rehabilitation effort they are more likely to succeed upon release. Having access to technology, however limited it may be, is beneficial to most prisoners. For me a long timer, familiarizing myself with technology has enabled me to understand the outside world better. I feel as if my transition back into the free world would be seamless, especially with learning and catching up with the technological changes that have taken place since my incarceration. And I credit my state’s willingness to provide their prisoners with access to technology….

My Discussion With The Ohio Director Of Prisons

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has a dual mandate. This mandate exists in its very name, to rehabilitate in addition to punish. When the department was created its founders understood the importance of rehabilitation, and it’s no mistake that the word exists in its name.

Whatever prevailing public attitudes may be, the direction of corrections at the state level is heavily influenced by the views, attitude, and policy brought forth by the director of prisons. While this individual is appointed by the governor picked to execute his or her vision, this doesn’t always occur.

The ODRC director wields considerable power in being able to affect change. Former ODRC director Gary Mohr, of whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 2014, was the first director in decades to aggressively pursue rehabilitation based policy changes as a priority. Although we’ve had governors who believed in rehabilitation, we had a long run of directors that did not. If they did, their efforts to enact change were token at best, wallpaper for anyone that might be paying half attention. They were good examples of how there can be a disconnect between a governor elected based on his policy agenda and the individual he appoints to execute it. However, difficulties don’t end there. Oftentimes when the governor and director of prisons are in alignment, subordinates are not.

In my conversation with director Mohr, he expressed frustrations that his policies weren’t always embraced by his peers and that he constantly fought an uphill battle. I experienced first hand what he was talking about. I’ve met staff openly hostile to any talk of helping inmates or of providing them with resources to help themselves. An attitude that’s born from biases and stereotypes and strikes to the center of the debate of punishment vs rehabilitation.

During the final days of director Mohr’s administration, he stated publicly what he said to me privately, and that his only regret was that he wasn’t able to do more. I credit former director Mohr for encouraging staff to take an active role in guiding offenders toward a path of change. Staff engagement is key to the rehabilitative process.

Current ODRC director Ms. Annette Chambers-Smith

Here at my institution there’s a diverse offering of programs designed to encourage prisoners to address their shortcomings and to encourage proper living. We have entire housing units dedicated to programming and even pre-release preparation. It’s something most of my peers recognize and as a whole are thankful for. When I see short timers going home now, I feel that the probability of recidivism amongst this crowd is less than it used to be only five years ago.

The ODRC director supports availability of programs designed to address inmate thinking issues, from addiction to mental health. Addiction programs are tied to release and successful engagement and participation by prisoners is rewarded through the issuance of ‘good days’ or ‘dump days’ where a prisoner may gain an earlier release.

The key issue at hand isn’t a lack of resources. We have that. They key issue is a lack of staff dedicated to the rehabilitation mandate. This isn’t a problem at every institution in Ohio or across the country for that matter, but appears to be an issue at institutions that may lack a strong leadership core. A leadership core that believes in the vision and direction of the directoror at the least is willing to engage as part of one’s job expectations.  This strikes at the heart of Core Correctional Practices. One component of this approach requires staff willing to view offenders as in need of assistance, and requires staff willing to assist.

It’s my experience that the majority of staff are on board for whatever direction the director of prisons pursues. Most want to help prisoners to get their lives in order, but are sometimes stopped by a small core of peers who aggressively oppose helping prisoners. This is where leadership comes in. A proactive interaction with subordinates encouraging them to engage in the rehabilitation mandate with prisoners can be very effective…

A Word On Core Correctional Practices

Core Correctional Practices (CCPs) are based upon the premise that prisoners need treatment assistance in addressing personal issues, and that staff play a critical role in this process. Throughout my incarceration I’ve experienced the positives when staff are sincerely engaged as well as the extreme negatives when they aren’t.

With regard to rehabilitation and CCP the effectiveness of these efforts is easily traced to leadership at the institutional level. My experience is that there isn’t a lack of staff willing to engage with us but usually a failure of leadership. A failure to encourage staff to buy into the rehabilitation mandate. What role does leadership play and specifically how can they help both inmates and staff throughout this process?

When staff overseeing programs and therapeutic communities aren’t genuinely interested in helping prisoners we immediately notice this. So many staff simply ‘go through the motions’ in their duties and when prisoners see this it has a collective discouraging effect. Worse, many staff are discouraged from helping prisoners out of fear of ridicule from some of their peers. Often there’s a small core of staff who don’t believe in helping prisoners, that punishment and punishment alone is all that should be considered.

As an example, at one Ohio institution in the late 90’s there was a mass exodus of staff that left because they were fed up with how things were run. They transferred to other institutions or found new employment. All of the staff that departed were viewed as helpful kind and sincere by the prisoners. The prisoners knew why they left because these staff openly talked about the things they disliked amongst their peers. A big problem was that there was no process in place for them to air grievances without retribution. So rather than talk to superiors of whom they feared, they chose to quit employment or transfer.

There’s a lot administrators can do. Creating an anonymous way for subordinates to communicate with wardens about issues important to their ability to perform their jobs would greatly assist staff who otherwise would be reluctant to speak out.

Something that most staff didn’t like was the small core of ‘unprofessional’ staff that lived to torment the prisoners under their charge. But to speak openly about their unprofessional work ethic brought retribution from other unprofessional staff.

The departments of modern day prisons are subdivided and overseen by a handful of wardens. You have the warden who is the head of all staff and head of the institution. Then you have subordinate wardens who oversee staffing or security operations etc. As a warden I’d hold staff accountable to doing their jobs as expected of them. I’d survey inmates as I walked through the housing units or on the yard. I’d ask other staff about other staff, and I’d create a process requiring staff to be able to show at any given time that what they are doing is what they are expected to do as a professional. I wouldn’t be afraid to come down hard on staff who routinely disregard standards of professionalism. Doing so sends a clear message to others that says, “Unprofessional ethics will not be tolerated”. It also sends a message to observing inmates that says, “You are expected to abide by the rules and standard expectations regardless of who you are and you will be held accountable”. It shows prisoners that the whole of staff do care about them. Prisoners are more likely to listen to staff if they believe staff genuinely care.

As a warden, I’d create a mechanism for prisoners under my charge to communicate with me without fear of being exposed and without fear of retribution. I’d listen to concerns and make an honest and genuine attempt to address them. Prisoners at the previously mentioned Ohio institution could ‘kite’ the warden back in the day, but if they brought a grievance about a staffer the communication was cc to the immediate supervisor (who was often hostile toward them) and then that supervisor would reveal to the staffer in question who kited in the first place. The end result? Retribution ranging from yard officers coming in and tossing a prisoner’s cell, to other bad staff singling a prisoner out with false conduct reports and incident reports.

As a warden I would walk the yard, the whole of the institution and I’d do this regularly. I’d welcome those who approached me during these walks (both staff and prisoners) and I’d take note of concerns and issues and then follow up in the manner that I promised I would.

Most importantly, I’d listen to my staff. When they asked for resources I’d provide them. When they aired concerns and grievances I’d listen and then take action. I’d always follow up on any promise of action…

We’re early into writing Criminal Justice & The Prison System: Inside Out, and I have a lot to share with you as we go. I’ll be writing about both the positives and negatives of today’s modern correctional format while providing solutions to the rehabilitation puzzle.

Christopher

I recently published “Behind The Wall: A Prisoner’s Journal” By Christopher Monihan. It contains hundreds of posts from this blog by myself and prisoners across the country. Search Amazon by title and author’s name.

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