In the Penal Colony: This Way Out (part 3 of 3)

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Last week I wrote about the launch of the Marshall Project, a new not-for-profit, non-partisan journalism outlet that aims to jumpstart the conversation around our nation’s criminal justice system. In this third and final post in a series about the failings of America’s “prison-industrial system,” I’d like to shine a light on other, laudatory efforts being made to help make prison sentencing reform a reality. They include:

  • Education: A New Yorker article this September profiling Bard College President Leon Botstein underscored the vital role education has to play in keeping convicts from returning to prison. The Bard Prison Initiative (B.P.I.) is considered by many to be the signature success of an academic institution known for taking big, creative chances. Founded in 1999 by a Bard undergraduate, B.P.I. has helped to establish college-in-prison programs in institutions across the country including Wesleyan and Groucher. The program is as far as imaginable from the stereotype of prison education—remedial coursework, education test prep, and vocational training. Instead, B.P.I. offers students the same high-caliber liberal arts education that Bard undergraduates receive. The article quotes Anibal Cortes, a B.P.I. graduate who earned his degree in 2008: “If you put that kind of humanistic education into the inherently dehumanizing space of prison, you can restore a person’s individual agency.”
  • Jobs: If education is one effective way to reduce recidivism, solid job training is another. According to an article in The American Prospect, about half of Americans serving time in prison have full time jobs. Although these laborers aren’t included in standard labor surveys and lack the protections and benefits most workers expect—disability, worker’s comp, Social Security withholdings, overtime pay—most inmates want to work. Meaningful work gives inmates a sense of purpose, a break from the drudgery of prison life, a trusted place to be for part of the day, and helps them save in commissary accounts. Indeed, numerous studies have shown what common sense dictates: prisoners who gain strong professional skills and earn a good wage while working behind bars are far less likely to be locked up again. One amazing example of this sort of thing is a program in California that transforms felons into highly skilled deep sea divers. The Marine Technology Training Center is a commercial diving school located on the prison grounds at the California Institution for Men in Chino, San Francisco. The skills the program participants learn enable them to make lucrative, six-figure salaries as commercial divers, underwater welders, and heavy construction riggers upon their release. The program is tough—inmates are required to spend four times as long training as civilian divers—but the rehabilitation figures are remarkable. While the state’s recidivism rate for the incarcerated landing behind bars again within three years of release is 63.7%, the dive program’s rate is less than 15 percent.
  • Scientific Testing: DNA and biological evidence has revolutionized how criminal cases are prosecuted, and how wrongful convictions might be overturned. Founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld, the Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully incarcerated through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. Affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City, the Innocence Project explains on its website: “DNA testing has opened a window into wrongful convictions so that we may study the causes and propose remedies that may minimize the chances that more innocent people are convicted.” Since 1989, 321 people in 38 states have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing.

Education, jobs, scientific testing, and good journalism are just some of the ways we can begin to alleviate the strain the prison-industrial complex places on society. And positive signs of reform don’t end with the initiatives described above: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently proposed widespread changes to mandatory sentencing guidelines for drug offenses; the decriminalization of marijuana has moved from a fringe movement into the mainstream; and for the first time in a generation, the national prison population is beginning to decline.

These recent strides, coupled with a growing awareness of the system’s egregious failings, make this the right moment to press for a national conversation about our criminal justice system. Together, we might find a way out of our national penal colony.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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