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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

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

by Madeline Bailey

Those opposed to harsh sentencing and the criminal “warehousing” of United States prisons rejoiced on May 17th  when the Supreme Court took a step to reduce extreme policies of punishment.

It was ruled that juveniles can no longer be sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes other than homicide.   The case of Graham v. Florida decided that the court must provide young offenders with some opportunity for hope and reform. This is a welcome retreat from punishment without the possibility for reconciliation and rehabilitation. Read the rest of this entry »

by Madeline Bailey

Last week, NPR featured the story of Raymond Towler, a 52-year-old man who was released from prison on May 4th after spending nearly 30 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.  After being sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981, Towler waited faithfully for justice. Thanks to the Ohio Innocence Project and their work to obtain DNA testing, he was finally proven innocent –29 years too late. Read the rest of this entry »

College Ivy Sprouts at a Connecticut Prison – City Room Blog – NYTimes.com.

November 16, 2009, 12:47 pm <!– — Updated: 12:43 am –>

College Ivy Sprouts at a Connecticut Prison

Three of the 19 inmates in Beth Richards’s expository writing class. All competed mightily for the spots and are earning Wesleyan University credits.

CHESHIRE, Conn. — In many ways it was just another day, another class of Wesleyan University, one of the more selective colleges in the Northeast. The topic was multiculturalism in schools. The discussion focused on methods of evaluating the rhetorical skills of various commentators, from Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to Dinesh D’Souza.

One student pored over the text, his glasses perched at the tip of his nose. Another raised his hand again and again, eager to speak. A third lobbed grenades into the discussion. Several worried aloud about their homework, a research paper due in a few weeks.

After years of slim pickings for prisoners who craved higher education, two Wesleyan University students convinced their school to bring an elite college education to inmates at a high-security prison.

Unlike other Wesleyan classes, though, each of the students — all men — had numbers like 271013 or 298331 on their khaki shirts. They were, in fact, inmates at the state prison here and all part of a daring, privately financed experiment in higher education that takes murderers and drug dealers and other inmates with histories of serious crime and gives them an opportunity to get an elite college education inside their high-security prison, the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

Though community colleges and others, like Boston University, have long had inmate programs, the two-month-old Wesleyan program is one of a few in the country where the selection process is highly rigorous, where academic potential is the primary criterion and where past criminal conduct, however heinous, is not considered in admission.

Some 120 inmates applied at Cheshire for 19 spots in the program. The process required them to submit essays, some of which can be read here, on weighty matters like Frantz Fanon’s view that language helped “support the weight of a civilization” or Sigmund Freud’s thoughts on happiness.

The instructors were impressed with Jose Cordero’s answer to one admission question: What figure, past or present, would he like to meet? Mr. Cordero, who is serving 65 years for murder, said he would like to meet the Constitution, since it is a “living” document.

He got a fat envelope, filled with blank paper for his future assignments. The rejected got those dreaded skinny ones.

Next semester, the inmates will study chemistry, biology and politics. This fall, their courses consist of expository writing and Sociology 152, the same introductory course Professor Charles C. Lemert has been teaching to generations of Wesleyan students at its nearby Middletown campus where tuition, room and board cost roughly $51,000.

“My father does college planning,” said Michael Luther, a 23-year-old who has been incarcerated since he was 15, “and a lot of students he recommends for Wesleyan don’t even get in. When he heard I had this opportunity, he was proud.”

On Wednesdays, students from the Wesleyan campus come to the prison for joint discussion groups with the inmates. The prison is a high-security center that houses roughly 1,350 inmates. It is the place where all of Connecticut’s license plates are made, and it offers a variety of other classes beyond the Wesleyan program, though not college level. The motto posted in the school wing reads “Non Sum Qualis Eram,” or “I am not what I once was.”

Indeed, all the inmates in the program have records that speak clearly about their past wrongdoing. The class has six convicted murderers, two convicted drug dealers and a kidnapper. Collectively, the class faces more than 600 years in prison. Several students, in fact, have little prospect of ever using their college credits in a career: prison will be their home for this lifetime.

But many of them speak with pure clarity about the reasons they were drawn to school again: idle curiosity, intellectual interest, a longing to be part of the big conversations of the day, and a desire for self-respect.

“It’s rejuvenating,” said Antonio Rivera, 23, who likes to read history and is less than halfway through a 12-year sentence for drug dealing.

Serving 50 years, Clyde Meikle said he was grateful for the chance to tackle course work that “takes me out of here.”

Serving 50 years, Clyde Meikle said he was grateful for the chance to tackle course work that “takes me out of here.”

Clyde Meikle, 38, of Hartford is serving a 50-year sentence for fatally shooting a man with whom he tussled over a parking spot. Ten years ago, he earned his high school diploma in prison. He likes to set a positive example for what he calls “the younger cats.”

“For me, it was a self-esteem thing,” he said.

Across the country, colleges faced with shrinking endowments are trying to cut corners, not add programs, and many colleges have given up their inmate education programs in the years since the Clinton administration decided it would no longer subsidize them with Pell grants.

Four years ago, in fact, Wesleyan balked at a proposal to install such a program.

But the university has a long history of civic engagement that traces back to its Methodist roots. It is named after John Wesley, an 18th-century minister who championed prison reform and helping the downtrodden. Two students, Russell Perkins and Molly Birnbaum, who had volunteered in prisons as students, revived the idea last year when they were seniors and figured out a way to finance it.

They obtained nearly $300,000 from the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that already pays to offer Bard College courses in a handful of New York prisons. That should fully pay for Wesleyan’s program for two years and provide partial financing for two more.

“Wesleyan has taken a courageous stand here,” said Max Kenner, the executive director of Bard’s program, who said he is convinced that education is a key tool for reducing recidivism.

How to finance the program over the long term is still under discussion, as is the question of whether an inmate who completes the course work will necessarily receive a Wesleyan degree.

But the instructors insist that the standards are identical — that an A in prison is the same as an A on campus and that the inmates will be entitled to use the university’s career services upon release.

Crime victims and their advocates question whether the investment will be worthwhile. “I appreciate the need to educate offenders, but I’m saddened we don’t spend that kind of money or take that kind of time to rebuild the lives of crime victims,” said Michelle S. Cruz, Connecticut’s independent victim advocate.

Sam Rieger, a Waterbury man whose 19-year-old daughter was murdered by a man now incarcerated at the Cheshire prison, agreed. “This does not make sense to me,” he said of the Wesleyan program. “What is the point?” He said the money should be spent on victims or on trying to help young people make better choices.

On a recent Monday at the prison, Beth Richards, the inmates’ English professor, looked around the class and sought to assure them that they have the same ability to succeed as their main campus counterparts. “Remember,” she said, “for most of literary history, people did it with pencil and paper. I agree you have limitations, but you have no limit on your brain.”

The discussion turned to whether multiculturalism had a place in schools.

Damien Thomas, 33, who is serving a 120-year sentence for two murders, said he took issue with the concept of the melting pot. “The salad bowl theory is better,” he said. “Everyone keeps their different shapes and forms but still contributes something to the salad.”

University administrators say they will raise additional money to finance the program privately so as not to siphon money from Wesleyan’s core mission. That was among the concerns raised by the faculty when it gathered to vote on the proposal last spring.

The vote was first scheduled to be taken on May 6, but it was postponed when a Wesleyan junior, Johanna Justin-Jinich, was murdered that day at the bookstore, turning a tranquil campus into a raucous crime scene. The faculty endorsed the plan two weeks later by a show of hands, with some dissent.

“If anything is unanimous at a Wesleyan faculty meeting, we’d be worried,” said Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan’s president. He said he shared some of the faculty’s initial concerns, but “the students convinced me.”

The university has not fully wrestled with what it would do if inmates were released before completing their studies. Bard faced this issue in May, when a female inmate became eligible for release weeks before her graduation. She extended her stay to receive her diploma.

“Oh, my,” Dr. Roth said upon hearing about the inmate. “I don’t know if that would be the solution I’d want to hear.” He said Wesleyan would be “as helpful as possible to someone who had that kind of dedication.”

During her class in the prison, Professor Richards walked a fine line between energizing her students with the demands of real scholarship and scaring them back into their cells. “My job,” she said, “is to make you at least partially paranoid.”

“Mission accomplished,” said Michael Fauci, 28, a convicted robber.

Vasco Thring, 34, wanted to know whether unwittingly using a phrase like “education begins at home,” which may have been said by someone else before, in a paper constituted plagiarism.

“You are all worriers,” the professor said. “That’s fine. If I have a choice between a group that doesn’t give a rip or worriers, I’ll take the worriers. But trust your intelligence.”

“You’re allowed,” she said, “to make mistakes here.”

Inside Looking Out on Vimeo

‘Inside Looking Out’ tells the story of the national Inside-Out prison exchange program by focusing on the University of Oregon Honors College course taught at the Oregon State Penitentiary. Through the study of classic literature, outside students, learn to understand life inside a prison while inside students learn what it is like to be a student. It is a story of personal transformation through confronting and changing misconceptions people inside and out have about the meaning of education, and incarceration. What can be learned from another human being?