North American Serial
Approx: 1350 WORDS
NON MULTA SED MULTIM: QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY
S. Reese Wilson
Time itself rehabilitates no one. Like the stars, it is indifferent to us: it remains the same no matter what we do. Actually, it tends to solidify thoughts and actions, turning them into habits, good or bad. With regard to prisons, it's mostly bad. As Oscar Wilde, an ex-convict himself; said:
The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom _well in prison air;
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there."
"The Ballad of Reading Gaol."
The greater amount of time a person spends in prison, the lower his or her chances at rehabilitation become. As Harry Whittington, the former executive board member of the Texas Department of Corrections who was famously shot in the face by former Vice-President Dick Cheney, said, "Prisons are to crime what greenhouses are to plants." This is because time alone will not rehabilitate anyone. Both sides of the incarceration debate ignore this fact.
One side, the "lock them up longer," minimum-mandatory proponents believe time, lots of it, will rehabilitate a person.
They believe that the longer the sentence the likelier the person will come home rehabilitated and deterred from committing more crime From where do they derive such beliefs? If this were true, recidivism would be dramatically reduced in Pennsylvania. it's not. Time itself is not going to provide inmates with the employment-and interpersonal skills needed to successfully re-enter free society. And they will return. 90% of Pennsylvania's state prisoners, more than 45,000 people, have release dates.
Minimum mandatories, often heavily-applied against ethnic minorities and the poor, do not deter crime. Criminals commit crime because they don't believe they'll be caught. They don't think, "I'll get this much time if I do this crime." Criminals don't think about sentences until they're standing before a judge. Whatever sentencing scheme our legislature enacts, it won't deter someone who does not believe he'll get caught. The results of minimum mandatories are overcrowded prisons, larger corrections budgets and better criminals. Minimum mandatories have pushed the state prisoner population across America from 200,000 in the 1970's to over 1.4 million today. Pennsylvania's correcti-ons budget in .1980, before the minimum mandatory craze, was $94 million. Today, it is over $2 billion. Locking people up for longer sentences has not helped prisoners or the public. Minimum mandatories are a discredited and ruinously expensive approach to increasing public safety.
On the other side, there are advocates for alternative sentencing, repealing minimum mandatories and the elimination of life sentences, juvenile and adult. They too hold the false
Wilson Page-3 belief that time, enough of it, makes someone a better person.
While I agree with the Supreme Court of the United States' decision that it .is cruel and unusual punishment to impose a mandatory life sentence on a person who committed a crime while under the age of eighteen (I would extend it to 22), I do not believe there is a fixed amount of time that will insure a juvenile's or any other person's rehabilitation. Until very recently, Pennsylvania's lifers were precluded from rehabilitative programs. Some of them have been locked up for twenty years over and are just now being afforded a chance to enter rehabilitative programs. Was time itself supposed to rehabilitate them?
No one can say that twenty years behind bars is going to rehabilitate someone. And it doesn't matter if the person was 16 or 26 when he or she committed the crime. Time alone won't do it. I have been housed at ten of Pennsylvania's state prisons. I have walked the yard and shared cells with men doing ten-year, twenty-year and life sentences. Can I say that time has rehabilitated them? Can I say I would feel comfortable with them around my family? Not most of them. Why not? Because while the quantity of their time spentin prison has been great, the quality has been poor.
Both sides of the incarceration debate focus on quantity: one siaes pushes for more and the other pushes for less. What matters most is the quality of of the time spent in prison. When quantity is emphasized over quality, the result is always a defective product. Pennsylvania's prisons . have been churning out defective products, ill-prepared parolees and ex-offenders, for decades. And the price of recall, more crime and bloated corrections budgets, has not been cheap. The recently opened
SCI-Benner cost taxpayers $200 million. SCI's Phoenix I and II, slated to open in 2015, cost taxpayers $400 million. That's $600 million for more of the same defective product.
Why are the products defective? Why are prisoners returning home ill-equipped to re-integrate into society? The educational, vocational and therapeutic programs in our prisons, the heart of the rehabilitative process, have been gutted. The programs that offer a real opportunity for rehabilitation have been eliminated or drastically reduced. And 90% of Pennsylvania's prisoners have release dates.
Our prisons have gone the way of our public schools: the focus is on testing, not real competency. In order to obtain a certificate, needed for parole purposes, all one has to do is show up enough times and parrot enough correct answers. The programs that require demonstrable competency are gone. Those programs offer the best chance to acquire the skills needed to stay out of prison. Why isn't there a push from either side of the debate to enhance and increase these programs? As long as each side focuses on quantity and not quality, things will continue to get worse. And as Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Everybody, soon or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences."
The governor and legislature continue to grapple with an out of control corrections budget. This year's budqet saw an increase that amounted to an average of $991.55 per prisoner. The education budget's increase amounted to an average of $71.67 per pupil. Our cities are crime-ridden and struggling to absorb thousands of ill-prepared parolees and ex-offenders.
The hodgepodge of enacted "solutions," elimination of pre-release, Senate Bills 100 and 850, three more prisons, and more minimum mandatories prove that our public officials have jumped off the cliff and are attempting to build their wings on the way down.
If people are committed to reducing crime and recidivism, they need to push for better programming in our prisons. Sadly, it's much easier to enter a recreational program than a vocational, educational or therapeutic program. The prison population has increased significantly, but the staff needed to conduct rehabilitative programs has not. Is there any wonder why prisoners come home ill-prepared? Many prisoners are denied parole or have it delayed because they are required to take a program that doesn't have space for them. Increasing programs would not only increase their likelihood of rehabilitation, but also lessen the amount of time they must spend in prison.
The re-entry programs have been outsourced to private companies and halfway houses whose record of failing to adequately prepare ex-offenders and parolees has been publicly vilified by Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel himself. Ex-offenders who parole home have a higher success rate than those who parole to halfway houses. Clearly, depending upon private companies to rehabilitate ex-offenders isn't working. Rehabilitation, including re-entry programs, should begin inside the prisons.
Our public officials and prisoner advocates should work together to increase and enhance programming inside our prisons. Time will not rehabilitate prisoners. Only quality programming.
Wilson Page-6 will enable prisoners to obtain the marketable job and interpersonal skills needed to become productive members of society, thereby reducing crime, recidivism and the corrections budget, goals we can all agree upon. Without better programming, Pennsylvania will continue to grapple with a bloated corrections budget that saps the resources needed to enhance its schools and economy.
Prisoners across Pennsylvania walk the yard and watch the clock. Time keeps on ticking. And the prisoners will be released. The issue is whether they've had the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and return home as productive members of their families and communities. In order to achieve that goal, we must remember Seneca's wise advice: "It is quality rather than quantity that matters."