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Prison From the Inside

Al Rossiter

August 16, 2013

Category: Society > Crime

A disclaimer — I have not completed an extensive study of our country's prison system.  I have, however, spent the last five years volunteering in local medium-security prisons. Here are my observations.

  1. There are five elements that will almost guarantee prison for young men, especially young men of color: low income (folks who grow up in projects), weak or non-existent family support, membership in a gang, drug and/or alcohol addiction, compulsive behavior patterns.  Most of the men I encountered had little or no home support from early childhood on, and over 85% were imprisoned  because of a crime committed to serve an addiction.

  2. The recidivism rate is high. So many men I spoke with talked about "getting out, being clean for a bit, then the old addiction kicks in, and I'm back in prison." Funds are being cut, which means there are fewer programs to help prisoners prepare for a life "outside."  Also, if you have a prison record chances of being employed are not good.

  3. In Massachusetts, the taxpayer cost per inmate per year is about $46,000. This country has a higher percentage of the population behind bars than any other industrialized nation. Texas and California lead the way in this category.

  4. Judges are often limited in sentences they must impose. Mandatory life without parole for juveniles is adding one crime to another, especially when that law applies to teenagers, who are often tried as adults.

  5. Some people, I know,  carry stereotypes of prisoners due partly to movies and TV shows and partly to those frightening photographs of psychopathic murderers we often see in the newspapers — incorrigible, evil, low-life types, uneducated, who should be "put away."  Most of the inmates I worked with were frightened, lonely, often angry, plagued with guilt, and sometimes numb to their own feelings and the feelings of others. My challenge was to try to restore each inmate's sense of self-worth.  Give them a good story where they can reflect on their lives (Macbeth, Hamlet, Heart of Darkness, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and their humanity becomes visible and poignant. Some of the best "teaching" of my entire career has taken place in prison. Encourage a prisoner who is reading Hamlet to talk about revenge, or someone studying Macbeth to talk about guilt, and you are guaranteed a rich discussion.

  6. Being with prisoners places one face to face with issues of forgiveness.  How do you forgive people who have committed crimes?  Most of the men I encounter are not bad people.  Rather, they are people who, often because of unfortunate circumstances, have committed crimes, usually under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 

  7. It's hard to drive away from a prison without thinking about freedom. Imagine being unable to be with your children as they grow up, being locked in a cell for much of the day, having your entire life controlled by guards and institutional regulations.  What would that do to you emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually?