Underdogs in the Monster FactoryPosted: April 1, 2009
Sunny Schwartz is a nationally recognized expert in criminal justice reform and the founder of Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) which was awarded the Innovations in Government Award, sponsored by the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University and the Ash Institute. Sunny is also the author of Dreams from the Monster Factory: A Tale of Prison, Redemption, and One Woman’s Fight to Restore Justice to All
I was raised on the south side of Chicago and so should have been a White Sox fan, but my heart gravitated to the loveable losers of the north side, the Cubs. Later, when I moved to San Francisco, I gave myself with equal passion to the Giants. Like the Cubbies, they have failed to win the big one year after year and yet I stay devoted. I am like this in the rest of my life, too: I root for underdogs.
I work in the jails of San Francisco County, and my clients are thieves and wife beaters, drug dealers, gangbangers and murderers—underdogs, every one of them. They are a group of Americans, we’ve all recently learned, whose numbers have been growing by leaps and bounds. The Pew Study for the States found that 1 out of every 31 people in the United States is either behind bars or on parole or probation. 1 out of every 100 is locked up.
This is a vast number of people abandoned to society’s scrap heap. There are lots of names for this place: the big house, the slammer, and the joint. I think the best name is monster factory. In the typical monster factory, men are housed in cells on long tiers, where they have nothing to do. They sleep in their bunks, play dominoes and cards, watch the Jerry Springer show on TV, and scheme. They scheme about how to steal someone’s lunch, how to pull one over on the DA, how to score drugs and how to get even with whoever crossed them. They make shanks out of mops, pens, and metal shards broken off their bunks. The strongest thugs are allowed to terrorize the weakest. These monster factories epitomize a wasted system that has failed our needs and expectations.
And they are wildly expensive. Disturbingly, the Pew study found that spending on corrections is growing faster than any other line item in state budgets. But despite the spending increases, recidivism rates haven’t moved an inch, hovering somewhere around 70 percent. “There is no other business in the world,” one corporate attorney told me, “that gets an increase in their budget when they have a seventy percent failure rate.”
For far too many years, we have been content to keep the problems out of sight and out of mind, throwing money at the problem by building more jails and prisons, and incarcerating more and more people. But our global economic crisis has brought the issue to a head. Without change, the correctional system faces collapse.
But there is reason for hope and the evidence is in San Francisco, in the programs Sheriff Michael Hennessey and I have helped set up which invest in a prisoner’s success rather than his or her failure. One program is called RSVP, or Resolve to Stop the Violence. I started it because so few prisons addressed why so many of the men had gone to prison in the first place—their violence. In RSVP, we educate prisoners about the roots of their violence, get them to take responsibility for their actions, and give them tools to change.
Ben Matthews is but one example of our success. He was a meth addict and a skinhead who came into our jail wanting to start a race war. He left a counselor and leader of his peers who still wrestled with his demons, but has stayed out of jail, paid taxes, and helped other criminals to reform. Every extra dollar we’ve spent on programs has been paid back into government’s coffers with seven dollars in savings from the crimes we’ve prevented.
Programs are just part of the solution. You also need people to implement them, people who see a benefit to prisoners who get out and don’t come back. We’ve been blessed in San Francisco with men and women of good faith starting with our Sheriff, but you don’t need to rely on this. The right incentives will do the trick. Rewarding institutions and individuals when they lower recidivism rates is one particularly revolutionary idea.
Everyone has a stake in this, Republican or Democrat, big tent liberal or small-government conservative; this isn’t a partisan issue, it is a human one. I know that we can actually use the prisons to make us safer, and shrink the ever expanding and unsustainable prison budgets at the same time. I know it because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen men who have committed horrible crimes defy all predictions, take responsibility for their lives, and begin to make amends.
When that happens, for me, it’s like the Cubs have won the World Series, which every fan knows would be a miracle. Now imagine if across the country, every jail and prison challenged criminals to stop their violence, to stop using drugs, to get a job, to become responsible citizens, to become, as one friend described it, “taxpayers instead of tax drainers.”
If that happened, we wouldn’t just change the prisons and jails; we would remake the face of American society. That’s the dream I have. That’s what has sustained me in the monster factory, and it’s the way out of our current mess.