Sunday, November 25, 2007

Prisons: a national disgrace

Four thousands years ago it was known as desmoterian, "the place of chains." This is one of the earliest definitions of what is now known as the penitentiary. Conditions in America's prisons have been substantially deteriorating since the late 1970s, according to the August 1989 edition of The California Prisoner.

The collapse is due to the overwhelming increase in prison population and declining hopes for rehabilitation. According to "Warehouse Prisons: Life Inside in the Modern Age, " by John Irwin and Michael Snedeker, "Prisons are becoming human warehouses where prisoners are stored." Others agree. "Prisons hurt, maim and kill. Prisons demoralize and feed the slef-hatred generated by failed human potential. To be a person caged, shacked and bound is a humiliation, which makes one feel subhuman. The slow and methodical rape of the spirit continues day after day: Men and women inside our prisons are convinced tat they have no worth, no purpose, no hope, no rights, no chance," sates author Philip Brasfield in the May/June edition of The Other Side.

Most prisons are filled to capacity prior to the completion of construction. "California incarcerates 1 out of 8 prisoners in the U.S. We will need 30 to 50 new prisons due to the influx of inmates...(from the)...stricter enforcement of parole violation and the three strikes law," says Frank Dungan in "California's Overcrowded Prisons." Three criteria determine whether a prison is overcrowded, according to the article "Prison" from the Microsoft Encarta Onclyclopedia 2001. The rated capacity is the number of beds occupied by inmates, Operational Capacity refers to the entire community of inmates that can be imprisoned according to the size of the building, programs available and other services that are offered. The design capacity is the peak number of inmates that may be housed in the facility. Overcrowding occurs when one of these capacities has exceeded its limit. "In 1998 U.S. prisons operated at an average of 15 percent over their rated capacities," according to the article.

Overcrowding is impacted by convicted felons who remain in prison for a long period of time. States like California have the "three strikes" law. This law provides three-time violent offenders a life sentence with no possibility of parole. Federal funding for state facilities is provided only when the state facilities show that they understand the obligation for inmates to serve at lease 85 percent of their sentence, according to the "Prison" article.

What is being done about the epidemic? Apparently the government has taken the matter into its own hands and have come up with strategies that are known as "front-door" and "back-door" solutions. With these solutions, matters of justice are handled by the government either prior to or during sentencing. However, these programs are only used with a small percentage of inmates. "Inmates who have brought lawsuits alleging that overcrowding violates various provisions of the Constitution of the United States have achieved little success," according to Dean J. Champion, Ph.D., professor and chairman in the Department of Criminal Justice at Minot State University.

When convicted felons are incarcerated, profits are made. "Private interest have entered the incarceration business in a big way," states Phil Smith in the fall 1993 issue of Covert Action Quarterly. The more inmates and the more prisons, the more money is made by private prison contractors. Should we believe that there is justice for all? Perhaps it is merely a slogan created by those who are trying to preserve the current system in America. "Government's power to investigate, arrest, charge, try and punish its citizens is awesome. Power so overwhelming is subject to abuse, whether deliberate or inadvertent, (and) can deny justice to an individual accused of crime," states the Feb. 10, 1981 Minneapolis Tribune.

With the numbers of inmates in state and federal prisons quadrupling from the 1980s to 1990s from 319,000 to 773,000 to a booming 1,302,000 in 1999, critics say the system is failing. And the figures don't include the 523,000 people incarcerated in jail, sys the "Prison" article. "Recidivism among state and federal parolees in the United States has remained at a rate of about 65 percent for the past two decades. This means that almost two-thirds of those released from prisons are convicted again for committing new crimes," states Champion.

Chuck Nicol of the Legislative Analyst's Office states that the growth in prison population is expected to continue, and since the state is willing to support this growth, billions of dollars from state funding will be needed for supply. This money is then used for the construction and management of new prisons, but there are no available funds to build them at this present time. In the end, it ill be the state's budget that will be paying for these facilities that supposedly reduce the crime rate.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Convicted, imprisoned, freed...

"When you are in a controlled and sheltered environment, you become ill-equipped to decision making." These are the words of a wise 55 year-old man who was an inmate at the San Quentin State Prison in California. Joseph Jermoe Matthews was stuck in a revolving door, in and out of jail since a young age and then in and out of prison in his adulthood. His muddled illusions of life became a harsh reality when he came to realize that if he were convicted again, he would spend the rest of his life in a state penitentiary.

Matthews' cell measured four feet by eight feet, "small enough where I could touch the walls if I just stretched my arms out," he said. This was clearly an environment that made one anti-social. When asked if he would comment on the rehabilitation that the system offered he stated, "Their means was to punish; they did not focus on rehabilitation, and the more you punish someone, the more hostile you become. Everyone was just released a better criminal."

Prisoners have a lack of control over decisions, over activities, over all the aspects of their lives while incarcerated. They essentially have no privacy, they are observed served 24 hours per day, seven days per week. The rules and regulations that govern their activities are rigid. Matthews criticized their regulations against weight-training. "Then they took away our weights because officials worried that we were getting too strong, but what they didn't understand was that was our way of blowing out our frustrations."

In the early 1970s two American socialists, Greshman Sykes and Sheldon Messinger, prepared a code of ethics that was fabricated by inmates in a state prison. According to "Prison View" from Encarta Online, these rules read "(1) Do not rat or squeal on other inmates; (2) Do not interfere with the interests of other inmates; (3) Do not steal, exploit of cheat other inmates; (4) Do not be a sucker or make a fool of yourself by supporting policies; (5) Do not lose your cool; and (6) Be a ma, be tough and don't weaken. Inmate who violate these codes will be scorned or harmed by other inmates.

Matthew states, "You're always on guard, always paranoid and sleep with one eye open...Even your celly (cellmate) could go off on you if you look at him the wrong way." Supposedly these criminals are put in prison so they cannot harm society, but society in turn is harming them. For many of these men and women, prison has become a way of life. They only know how to survive in this unnatural environment, and upon their release, they are faced with the horror of fighting their way into society once again. What is prison? "A form of slave labor," according to Matthews.

For many, the journey through prison must be taken more than once, over and over again, until they learn on their own how to manage and survive a life without crime. Matthews mapped out a plan for his life upon his last release. In San Quentin, he found God and learned that worship was the only way out. He stayed at a Bible school for one year to clear his mind, body and soul of all crime, later living at a "sober living place" where he received the funding to attend truck driving school. With this job he was able to have transportation, get an apartment three months later and live his life as a Christian. He is now attending school to receive as a real estate agent.

For some this path may never be available. They will sit in their cells and wonder what is the easiest way to survive in society, and unfortunately they will only know what they think from experience is best---a life of crime. Matthews advises, "You must disconnect from your old lifestyle, leave your town, leave your "friends" and do what is right. For the first time I am seeing clearly, and it isn't so bad."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Coming up in November...

Part One: "Convicted, imprisoned, freed"
"You're always on guard, always paranoid and sleep with one eye open." An award-winning story about a convicted felon's life behind bars and his path to freedom. Part Two: "Prisons: a national disgrace" When convicted felons are incarcerated, profits are made. Why the revolving doors never closes.