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With over two million citizens incarcerated in the United States, this population is a demographic with its own unique issues and challenges that we literally cannot afford to ignore.  The exponential increase in the prison population is causing a trend (on both a state and national level) to increase Department of Corrections and prison sector spending.  Consequently, this is causing a drain on resources that could be going to support public education, community development, and social service programming.  Funds within Department of Corrections are also being re-allocated away from educational and vocational type programs towards prison expansions and constructions.

But why is this important?   As convicted criminals, haven’t these people given up their ‘right’ to an education?  As a culture that loves to be “tough on crime”, why would we put money towards the personal growth of incarcerated peoples?  That money should be spent on the betterment and increased safety of our communities.  The (perhaps unexpected) truth is that ultimately, education money for incarcerated peoples does make our communities safer.  And drastically so, at that.

For a society claiming to be “tough on crime” our end goal should ideally be overall decreases in both the crime and incarceration rates.  There is a faction of American society that believes the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude achieves this goal; that’s just simply not how our system works. The majority of incarcerated men and women will not serve their full sentence.  The majority (93% in the state of Oregon) will find themselves back in the communities and circumstances in which they committed the crime.  The majority—over 60%–will reoffend and find themselves back in prison.

With nearly two-thirds of ex-offenders finding themselves re-incarcerated, this does not point to great successes with current prison-management practices.  Nor, with an appallingly high recidivism rate and overflowing prisons, does it indicate we are a society that is “tough on crime”.  Taking steps to effectively lower the recidivism rate would, in turn, create safer communities.  For more than two decades (1970’s-mid 1990’s) recidivism rates associated with participation in college-in-prison programs were below 15%.  After the retraction of Pell Grants for prisoners in the mid-1990’s, college programs in prisons effectively disappeared, and the recidivism rate sky-rocketed once again.

The most important part of being “tough on crime” is addressing the needs of the main player: the ‘criminal’.  Educational and vocational training programs while in prison develop skills necessary for life in society.  Support services for the re-entry process—finding a job and housing, addiction therapy plans, and positive community involvement—are also essential for adjusting to life outside of prison.  So much of our society’s energy is placed on putting people behind bars; so little of it is addressed to what will happen when that person is no longer there.  Eventually, many people serving a prison sentence will come back into our communities, having either a positive or negative impact.  The negative (or positive) experiences had in prison will ultimately drive many of the actions taken upon return to our communities…just one of the compelling reasons why the outside community should have an invested interest in what happens in the one on the inside.  But, once society commits itself to this cause, what would be the most effective way to create change?  Will more be accomplished through a grassroots-style, community based undertaking?  Or will it require a broader, top-down, institutional policy?

Check out the links below for more information on educational and vocational opportunities for at-risk or incarcerated populations.

http://www.bard.edu/bpi/

http://www.homeboy-industries.org/index.php

http://governor.oregon.gov/Gov/governor_reentry_council/rec_index.shtml

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According to the 2009 Global Peace Index, the United States ranks 83 out of 144 countries in the world.  Why is this alarming ranking talked about so little?  What sort of political, social and cultural factors contribute to this position, and how can they be changed?

For the U.S., the most significant contributing factor to this ranking is our high incarceration rates; with less than five percent of the world’s population, the United States holds almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.  Criminal justice policies and practices have only aggravated the problem, as the number of jail and prison inmates in the United States has risen 274 percent in the past quarter century.  This silent migration of our own citizens from our communities to locked and monitored institutions is causing substantial social, economic, and cultural strains.  As a key step of progressing towards peace, we must address the realities of issues within the prison system.

Although incarceration is often presented through a ‘restorative’ lens as a time for growth and reflection, restorative justice practices and rehabilitative education are greatly lacking in the U.S. Prison system.  Lacking, but not absent.  In the field of restorative justice, there are several inspiring projects happening in prisons around the country.  Prison garden projects from Washington, Chicago, New York, and many places in between are connecting incarcerated individuals with nature, teaching marketable trade skills, providing produce to local food banks and hospitals, and reducing recidivism rates.  The Insight Prison Project in California offers a variety of educational and rehabilitative classes focused on community building, public safety, and, again, reducing recidivism.  The restorative justice movement is gaining momentum across the country, but has yet to come anywhere near fulfilling its potential in healing individuals, families, and communities whose lives have been fractured by crime and incarceration.

To reach this potential, we, as a society, must continue the dialogue about restorative justice and prison reform.  We must look critically at our laws and social practices and consider their implications; as well as look at current professional practices within the system, their successes, and opportunities for constant improvement and increased compassion towards our fellow community members, incarcerated or not.

For more information about the programs mentioned in this post, see the links below.

http://insightprisonproject.org/

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-09-09/news/ct-main-prison-garden-0909-20100909_1_jail-garden-inmates-volunteer-basil

http://planetgreen.discovery.com/food-health/prison-gardens-growing-trend.html

http://www.gardenproject.org/thegardenproject.htm