Can We Make Prisons Productive Places?

[Alyssa Rosenberg]

I was reading Dwayne's post on Juvenile Life Without Parole this morning, and the last paragraph really stood out me:

"I don't think our justice system has evolved to something more productive and effective than it was fifty or a hundred years ago. In most other industrialized nations, life is something conceivable like 30 years or 50 years, and parole is an option. These nations have lower incarceration rates than the US - they have less crime. Somewhere our justice system got off track - we replaced medieval guillotines and rope for jail cells that don't aim to rehabilitate."

As I mentioned yesterday, I did some volunteer work in the Massachusetts prison system a while back, and in my day job at Government Executive, I occasionally write stories about staffing and the challenges prison guards face in the federal prison system.  So I'm interested in the question of how we can create strong, sustainable rehabilitative programs for people who are incarcerated, and how we keep prison guards feeling secure enough to do their jobs and create disincentives for prisoners to use violence against guards and vice versa.

Clearly, it's possible to create good rehabilitative programs.  The one I worked in required the women involved to go through alcohol and narcotics treatment, and intensive job training and parenting classes.  The incentives were pretty good: if they completed their classes, they got to see their daughters twice a month, through a program that was handling all the hassles of getting their daughters to the prison and also checking in on how they were doing in school, with foster families, etc.  The one mother who got out of prison while I was involved with the program did find work when she was released.  But as sections of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family (and of course many other sources) point out, who gets into those programs can be haphazard, and they're not necessarily widely available, given the stark cuts in funding for educational programs in prisons.  I think it's good to have volunteer-run programs, but unless they operate on a very wide scale, volunteer programs can erode fairly easily, and if they rely on bringing people in from the outside, risk getting snarled in swiftly-shifting bureaucracies.

Mark Salzman's book about the writing classes he teaches in Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, True Notebooks, make a point that dovetails with Dwayne's argument.  After Salzman's been teaching for a while, one of the prison staffers he's built a relationship with tells Salzman he's making the boys he teaches feel special.  Salzman takes it as a compliment, but the staffer explains that it's not: Salzman's classes make it harder for his students to blend into the general prison population, a problem that's particularly acute for the many prisoners he teaches who are facing life sentences without the possibility of parole for murder.  In other words, JLWOP doesn't just foreclose kids' lives, it provides an extremely strong argument against engaging in any sort of rehabilitative activity.

All of which highlight exactly how awful our adult prison system is.  And it's awful for guards as well as for prisoners.  Not that their experiences are the same, of course.  But it's well worth reading Ted Conover's Newjack, his memoir of working in Sing Sing, especially the scene where he subdues his own child with a "use of force" technique he learned on the job, as a jumping off point for a discussion of what working in a prison does to a person.

My reporting experience is based in the federal prison system, where between 2002 and 2006, the number of prison guards fell by 4,600, even as the federal prison population rose from 145,000 in 2000 to 205,000 today.  (And the Sacramento Bee reports today that Michigan is trying to save prison guard jobs by offering to house California prisoners for a fee, a policy that would dramatically uproot prisoners from family and whatever ties they have left to the outside world.) I'm entirely receptive to the idea that we're incarcerating far too many people, but I think that preserving a relatively low prisoner-to-guard ratio is a good idea.  Having more guards creates disincentives for prisoners to attack them, and having more guards available means it's easier to subdue someone without using lethal force.  The Bureau of Prisons and the American Federation of Government Employees are currently negotiating over whether to provide all prison guards in the federal system with custom-fitted stab-resistant vests and non-lethal weapons like pepper spray and tasers.  I'm not really sure about the wisdom of the latter, but it does seem like helping prison guards feel that, even if they're attacked, they're likely to survive, is probably a good thing.

The issue is particularly heated because of the stabbing death of a federal prison guard, Jose Rivera, last year, who was attacked by inmates drunk on jailhouse-brewed liquor.  The prison where he worked wasn't disciplining inmates who were caught drinking (nor were they, as it turned out, aware that inmates were ripping up cleaning equipment to make weapons).  When he was attacked, he was the only guard inside a secure area of the prison, and administrative staffers came to his defense first because there wasn't anyone in proximity who had a key to let other guards into the secure unit.  When someone dies under circumstances like that, you can see why the union representing the prison guards is heated.

But those circumstances are possible only when you've got a system that isn't even bothering to try to change for the better the people it's incarcerating.  If your reaction to the wide availability of home brew is relief that it gets folks drunk and docile, rather than to try to get folks into AA, you're giving up both on the possibility of improvement of prisoners and the safety of officers.  If rehabilitation can give prisoners another chance at life, and can make prison guards safer, it seems like a worthwhile investment.  There are costs to giving up on people that locking them up forever doesn't eliminate.