The trouble with prison reformers

Hartman, Kenneth



KENNETH E. HARTMAN, California THE TROUBLE WITH PRISON REFORMERS What appears to be virtually incomprehensible to non-prisoners, even those with the best of conscious intentions, is that our world is truly our world. it is not simply a warped version of the world on the other side of the fences, nor is it some kind of ephemeral, contingent existence. It is, most definitely, a separate and distinct world. Further, in this whole otherness, prisoners are not merely stick figures waiting to resume their full dimensionality on the other side of the fences. The vast majority of us are entire entities capable of rational decision-making and thinking participation. It is difficult for me to recall exactly how many times I have watched a well-meaning rehabilitative program go down in a chorus of yawns. The hardest part for me is watching the inevitable disintegration of the program founder's or managers' resolve to continue prison-based work. I always feel sad for them, but the failure is entirely predictable and easily explained. The program was written for prisoners by non-prisoners. Likewise, too many times to count, I have been compelled to debate with otherwise rational and well-meaning folks about why they are not helping. Usually, the struggle in these cases is one of control. And since there is only rarely any settlement reached, the result is the alienation of the prisoners involved in the program at issue, followed by the frustration of the staff member or volunteer. Without our assent, nothing can succeed inside our world. While it is possible to bribe and even cajole some measure of interest, genuine participation in the complete sense is always a voluntary choice. Prisoners are masters at refusing participation in what we deem to be undesirable, regardless of the consequences. The reason the most recent spate of efforts at reviving rehabilitation has met with spotty results, beyond the on-the-ground staff and other entrenched interests' resistance, is the tacit complicity of "reformers" in the dehumanization of prisoners. If the unexpected opening in the punishment-for-the-sake-of-inflicting-pain wall is to be taken advantage of fully, prisoners must be involved in the conception, design, implementation, and operation of rehabilitative programs. Otherwise, we will continue to be reluctant participants, at best, in parachuted-in programs. And, yes, that is a sour statement, but it comes from watching scarce resources and scarcer opportunities squandered by people who are certain they know what is best for us regardless of what we think. More to the point, regardless of what we know. In my more than thirty-one years of continuous imprisonment, l have participated in the conception of several worthwhile reform projects, all of which have taught me useful lessons. The biggest lesson, and the one with the most far-reaching and enduring consequences, is that prisoners must be allowed, encouraged really, to be a large part of the design of such programs. Back in 1998, at a point in the history of the corrections system in this state when the punishment movement had achieved complete dominance, I began work on the proposal for what would eventually become the Honor Program. I had to write it in such a way as to appear to be about rigid rules, but the heart of it was the idea of rewarding positive behavior. The acolytes of the "get tough" approach had settled on an all-negative reinforcement set of policies. As any marginally aware prisoners could have predicted, the result of this was mass chaos, off-the-charts violence, and the collapse of even the pretense of rehabilitation. Just as telling, the recidivism rate skyrocketed. The Honor Program turned the system upside down by reviving a rewards system. It was not anything fancy: just more yard time, a little more property, and the promise of a respite from the lunacy that has overtaken the rest of the prisons. Luckily, the authorities saw the random drug testing and prerequisite disciplinary-free time, and overlooked the positive angle. Within one year of full implementation, a facility that had been notorious for riots and drug trafficking went months without a single recorded disciplinary infraction. The program inspired bipartisan legislation and the ire of the old bulls running the prison-system hierarchy by exposing their failures. Prisoners did not do it all. Helpful and supportive staff played vital roles. Nevertheless, the program succeeded because prisoner experience and input informed the final product. Years later, working with an extremely progressive nonprofit, I co-wrote the curriculum for a course called the Creating a Healing Society Program. The course has been taught now for more than six years to well over 250 prisoners. It continues to be among the most popular programs offered here, with a long waiting list. Again, non-prisoners played a vital role and continue to keep the program alive, but without the prisoner experience poured into the content up front, it would not have as powerful and resonant an impact, and not have such wide appeal. With still other tremendously supportive and creative free people, I helped to create The Other Death Penalty Project, which is a true grassroots movement to end the use of life without the possibility of parole in the United States. There are now roughly ten thousand active prisoner participants across the country. We have issued national press releases, been contacted by media organizations for our input, and sent out thousands of organizing kits to help empower prisoners. Most recently, along with noted author Luis J. Rodriguez (Always Running), we sponsored a writing contest for prisoners serving "the other death penalty." A book of these collected stories has been published, titled Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough. We hope to put it on the desks of one thousand decision-makers and persons of influence. I edited the book. All the decisions for the Project were made by prisoners. To fully end our reliance on fiscal sponsors and other official intermediaries, we have now created the "Lifers' Education Fund," a stand-alone 501(c)(3) for the sole, authorized purpose of raising money to put life-sentence prisoners into upper-division, accredited college courses leading to a bachelor's degree. l am on the board of directors, and all the work of the organization will be done by prisoners, to whatever extent possible. Yes, free people will be involved in the operation - mailing, signing checks, doing the tasks that prison will not allow a prisoner to do - but the decisions will be made by prisoners for prisoners. All of these are examples of the kinds of projects and programs that can happen with prisoner input and consultation. But even in this setting, where a powerful and forward-thinking group of prisoners came together and aggressively carved out a space to work within, the nature of the prison system can, and too often does, reassert itself. Under the guise of budget difficulties and labor unrest, programs have come under attack. There is an ongoing problem of kick-the-dog syndrome where line guards, angry at cuts in their pay, retaliate by making programming difficult to run in every possible way. As the irresistible force of shrinking funds meets the unreasonable expectations of unionized prison employees, these acts of sabotage and unreasoned resistance will occur all over. After years of study and countless hours of research and writing, a blue ribbon commission of the best and the brightest in the fields of criminology and penology came up with what is known in California as the "Road Map." I have read the Road Map, the supporting documents and studies, and many of the same seminal texts that inform the work produced. Much of it makes sense, in fact. The professionals who produced the Road Map are, obviously, sincere and committed to the idea of reforming the grossly dysfiinctional, dystopian California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Nevertheless, the product of this massive effort was the so-called Solano Proof Project, which created a prison program laughably unsuited to an actual prison, filled with actual prisoners, guarded by actual guards. When I read the details of what was envisioned, I wondered if the idea was to turn the chosen facility into a suburban junior high school for "at-risk" youths. A common mistake of well-intentioned reformers is to assume that because many of us read at seventh-grade level we are thirteen years old. We are not, and being treated as if we are is both demoralizing and disrespectful. There is a need for immersion criminologists. The life of a prisoner, being a truly total experience, is not something a non-prisoner can ever really comprehend. There are a handful of professionals who come pretty close to getting it, but they are few and far from the levers of power. It seems only rational that the practitioners of the "convict criminology" movement should be more involved in designing programs for prisoners. Likewise, and no less rationally, prisoners - meaning currently incarcerated men and women - need to be much more involved in the conception, design, implementation, and operation of programs aimed at other prisoners. In California - an outlier only as regards the bloated size of the system - the past decade has seen concerned people trying to come to grips with what "get tough" policies have wrought; the idea of stakeholders' meetings became a vital part of the process. it makes perfect sense, of course, bringing together the various groups to try and balance out competing interests. But never was a prisoner invited to one of these convocations; apparently, we are not deemed worthy to hold a stake in our own lives. Inside the prisons there is a dark force that works diligently and continuously against the kind of reforms that need to take place if any success is ever to happen. In contrast to the naive quality of the reformers, those who are part of this malevolent group consciously seek to disempower and dehumanize prisoners. Over the past quarter of a century, there was an effective winnowing-out process that culled from the guard ranks anyone not on board with the new "get tough" mentality. Promotions were based on perceived harshness, and the best assignments went to guards with the most militant and hostile postures. Because most of the conduct of guards is rooted in fear, the result on the tiers and in the blocks is an increase in the level of violence bouncing back and forth between ever-angrier prisoners pushed around by ever more frightened guards. After the mass sifting of staff to the new paradigm of punishment for the express and sole purpose of causing suffering, those left to run the prisons are virtually incapable of even conceiving of running a rehabilitation-oriented prison system. The language of rehabilitation, the concepts and precepts, the framework of creating a healing community, the very idea of treatment inside the antiseptic concrete and steel of the modern prison... all of this falls on ears unprepared to hear, on hearts hardened by a society brainwashed into believing the impossible notion that human beings can be made better by being brutalized. The extension of this (un)thinking is possible only through guards who have been convinced that prisoners must be dehumanized. There is no other way human beings can be coaxed into treating their fellow human beings in such a manner as to deliberately cause suffering. The group doing the harm has to render the group being harmed less than human - dirty, dangerous, evil, worthy only of suffering - thus delegitimizing any claims to the protection of law. To accomplish this deconstruction of prisoners, a plethora of rules were enacted. Rules that run the gamut from how long your hair can grow to how you must divest yourself of all outside business interests. Rules that compel wearing clothing designed to demean and stigmatize. Rules that forbid adult prisoners from seeing an "R"-rated movie. Rules that, ultimately, prove the prisoner is not an adult, not a competent, thinking being, not fully human. The logical conclusion of this systematic process of dehumanization is the denigrated status of the dangerous "other." It explains, to a large degree, the erection of all the seemingly redundant and unnecessary security measures. No prison system on earth goes to greater lengths to prevent escapes than those in this country; in California, the layers upon layers of razor wire and heavily armed gun towers ringing all of the prisons, even down to the lowest security levels, were not enough. To counter the remote possibility that a prisoner could theoretically escape, lethally electriifed fences were installed. Powered up with enough amperage to kill a large man several times over, costing enormous sums, the electric fences proved inadequate to still the fear of the potential escape of the wildly dangerous contagion kept barely in check by the buzzing, impenetrable wall of wire. At least once a week. (and more often in the summer) this prison is locked down by a local citizen calling in a sighting of a suspicious person wearing blue clothes. The other expected outcome of so thorough and complete a job of dehumanizing prisoners is that the guards come to turn any programs, or whatever remains of them, into ways to serve guards' desires and interests, regardless of how their actions impact the lives of prisoners. Schedules are altered to provide men (and guards) with "down time," which is a euphemism for lockdowns. Programming is held hostage to what makes the guards less unhappy, hostage to the ludicrous expectation that programs need to meet arbitrarily fluid demands by job stewards, and show that sufficient obeisance has been offered to reified, all-powerful, all-consuming security. The black heart beating underneath all the layers of unpleasantness, the diabolical engine of the system, and the actual prime motivator of all that happens in these places, is so simple and basic it hides easily in plain sight. The real purpose of the vast empire of concrete and steel, as it operates now, is the provision of well-paying jobs. And the deeper reason for the widespread resistance to the return of rehabilitation is the fear of losing those well-paying jobs. The guards' unions latched early onto the panic that surged through the suburbs as crime became the lead story on the local news every night, as too many sons and daughters (lacking legitimate work futures in a globalized job market) adopted the wicked ways of the shadowy urban world, and as the mores and expectations of the past suddenly seemed endangered. The guards became uber-Republicans - giant-sized contributors to state-level politicians that toed their party line: more laws, more convictions, and more prisons to house the ever-growing number of human beings downsized out of the modern economy. It was a comprehensive strategy that went beyond just electing "law and order" politicians. In this state, the guards went so far as to create "victims' rights" groups and hire a lobbying army to write legislation codifying their dominance of the prisons. As every prisoner knows who has been run through the gauntlet of life, prison, and frustrating parole-board hearings, crises tend to be the proximate cause of great changes in a life. In the life of an organization, crises tend to force reorganization of what matters most, often exposing the real raison d'etre of the organization's existence. After all the years of championing victims' rights, of walking the toughest beats to defend society, of being on the frontline, Republicans realized that guards had simply become another avaricious public-employees' union. Overnight, the guards morphed into staunch Democrats fighting for sacred collective-bargaining rights. The Democrats let them into the old discombobulated tent because the years of sophisticated messaging had convinced voters the guards were soldiers in the hundred-years war on crime. The ugly truth of it is that the monstrous prison system is nothing more or less than a place to get good, well-paying government jobs. Never mind the foundational damage to the social structure of the country. It is about jobs, the resistance to rehabilitative programming, and that is the heart of it. Any change of a positive nature would necessarily result in fewer prisoners, and fewer prisoners mean fewer well-paying government jobs. Anyone going into this struggle to bring about change must be cognizant of this truth, distasteful as it is. That there is a desperate need for serious rehabilitative reform inside the prisons of this country is self-evident. The past generation of irrational, fear-based policies has purchased for society the worst-run, least effective, most expensive and inhumane prisons in the industrialized world, with the highest incarceration and recidivism rates of any nation, ever. After the biggest (still unpunished) mugging of a body politic in the history of the world, the system is on its ass, as the saying goes. States are going broke supporting institutionalized dysfunction. The next couple of generations of Americans will be paying for the excesses of our times. Prisoners will be released back into society whether they are ready or not, whether society is ready or not. Prisoners know what goes on in prisons better than anyone else. We know how this world of ours works. We know what needs to be done. We know how what needs to be done can be done. All the unmarked trails and switchbacks, the roadblocks, and the dead ends are on a map only we fully understand, and only we can well and truly interpret. At the very least, reformers should use the eyes and ears of prisoners to get an accurate sense of what's what in each prison community. The bogus anti-ideology of "nothing works" is a fraud. Any successful programs must include the experience and talent of prisoners. Prisoners should and must lead the way to creating a prison system that turns out parolees ready to assume a productive place in free society. If, as in the past, prisoners are shut out of the process, then the same ignoble, ineffective cycle will resume. lf, on the other hand, highly motivated prisoners are empowered to make a difference,' there is a real chance that the failure of prisons and prisoners can be turned around. The great lie that must be dismantled in the public mind is about prisoners themselves. The average prisoner is riddled with guilt and remorse for what he or she did to end up in prison. The drug addicts know how much they have let their families and friends down, how much they have let themselves down. The burglars are ashamed of breaking into someone's home, and the robbers are ashamed of the fear they brought into others' lives. And, most of all, prisoners who committed acts of violence, particularly those who took a life or left a life permanently scarred, are consumed with shame. No matter the image any specific prisoner may portray, under all the outrageous tattoos and ganged-up clothing, there is desperate longing to rebalance the scales, to repay the grievous debts incurred. Prison, as it has been reconceived by the newly ascendant guard culture, denies to all but a very few prisoners opportunities to earn back self-respect and start making payments back to society. The new form of prison fears any rehumanization of prisoners. In the space of the three decades of my imprisonment, the purveyors of this regime of pain, backed by all the special interests who have gained, managed to transmogrify prisoners from human beings gone bad, to bad human beings, to inhuman monsters that must be contained at all costs. I am now so dangerous to the free world on the other side of the fences that the press, the "free press," is not allowed to interview me personally. My mere presence on a television screen or in a newspaper apparently traumatizes still more victims. The actual reason I am held behind a screen of terrifying camouflage is because society might discover I look and act, think and feel, a lot like they do. Exactly like they do, actually. The worst thing that could happen to the current system would be for prisoners to lose their horns and fangs. Were we to become human again, much of what has been done inside these places would be found appalling and unacceptable. Here and there, against the odds and often against the rules, prisoners have managed to carve out little spaces within which a patch of sunlight has been opened up in the gloom. If the putative reformers are serious about bringing rehabilitation back into the system, it is in these places that it can start. Prisoners are an ingenious group of people. We are capable of crafting all manner of useful things out of the flotsam and jetsam of society. And we prisoners are fiercely loyal to our friends, to those who offer us a hand up, a chance to become better humans, a shot at redemption. It is in everyone's best interests for the reformers to come and sit down with us, to hear us out, to treat us with a little respect. If we all work together, the failures of the past decades can be turned around. The alternative is too grim to contemplate. The punishers will not be broke forever.

Author: Hartman, Kenneth

Author Location: California

Date: October 21, 2016

Genre: Essay

Extent: 6 pages

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