The following was written by Shari Randall for the “Writers Who Kill” blog.
By Shari Randall
The Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program was created in 1991 by UMass-Dartmouth professor Robert Waxler and his friend, Bob Kane, a judge. Kane was fed up with a “turnstile” justice system that saw the same people commit the same crimes as soon as they walked out the jail door. Waxler was determined to test his belief in the power of literature to reach places inside the minds and hearts of offenders where real change could take place. New studies support Waxler’s hypothesis, showing that among other things, reading helps develop empathy, and that increased empathy can lead to changes in behavior.
Listen to Dr. David Sherman of Brandeis University interview Changing Lives Through Literature co-founder Dr. Robert Waxler. They talk about the relationship between literature and jail in this “Convicted Reading” Literature Lab podcast.
Benjamin Fleury-Steiner is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. His most recent book is Dying Inside: The HIV/AIDS Ward at Limestone Prison.
The overwhelming majority of two-million plus offenders locked away in the nation’s jails and prisons are poor, non-violent drug offenders. Indeed, only a fraction represents America’s so called “worst of the worst” violent offenders. This observation is not controversial and has been well documented in an imposing empirical literature.
Another observation, however, of what exactly locking up so many human beings means is rarely addressed by academics and the public alike: Most of the people swept up in the prison boom of the last three-plus decades lack health insurance and disproportionately suffer from a host of serious-if-untreated illnesses such as Diabetes, HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.
When we consider gross carceral overcrowding and dwindling budgets for medical resources, it is not surprising that the federal government and the states have been forced to contract out health services with a focus on cost-cutting. In this way, even the most well intentioned health care workers and wardens simply cannot address and therefore must learn to live with increasing numbers of sick prisoners that needlessly die in their midst.
It is very easy place blame on politicians, prison officials, or doctors for this disturbing state of affairs. But playing such a blame game is counter-productive. The bottom line is this: Nearly four decades of locking up an unprecedented number of the chronically ill uninsured poor is institutionally unsustainable and, most importantly, inhumane and immoral.
While studying for the ministry, David G. Sarles began substitute teaching in the New Haven public schools and have been teaching since. He began running also then, up and down East Rock, and has been running more or less since then. But his running pales in comparison to those inmates who circle prison yards thousands of times to compete in marathons.
Last December, the high school writing class I teach read the CLTL post on “The Real Cost of Prisons.” One of these graphic stories was about a 15 year-old busted on a drug charge. It moved the students; however, they were anything but shocked. “Oh, yeah,” said Jermania, “That is just like my sister’s friend who got caught just talking to a friend who turned out to be a lookout. She’s in a juvenile home.” Delphine remarked, “Kids on my block are always offering me stuff.” Others replied with stories of crack houses, dealers, and runners they know from their exurban Long Island towns, most of them middle class communities.
They see some of their acquaintances getting sent up but can’t know what life behind bars is like. How much can those behind bars relate to prison life when they are back on the outside? The writing class can tap into the CLTL site and read and relate to the stories posted. Reading and discussing one of CLTL’s stories, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” offers Delphine and her writing classmates an impression of what it’s like to fail to resist tempters. CLTL blogs provide a glimpse of writers who work with those who walk the line between the streets and prisons.
It’s all but impossible, it seems, for the bars to disappear for prisoners. One of our role models, the photojournalist Taryn Simon, documented lives of exonerated prisoners in her book The Innocents. Simon’s eye into the lives of former prisoners, many from maximum security prisons, piqued the interest of my writing class. How can those returned to society after years of time served for crimes they did not commit know what to do in life on the outside?
Radek M. Gadek is a graduate of the Boston University’s Master in Criminal Justice program. He is the founder of Criminal Justice Online, an interactive blog dedicated to criminal justice academia and law enforcement careers.
Since its inception, the correctional system in the U.S. aimed to keep crime out of the streets. There are notable differences, however, when it comes to the way juveniles and adults are ultimately being helped while within the “system.” One must consider the age of an adult person in the United States is eighteen, and often, this is where the line gets drawn between being convicted of a crime as a juvenile and as an adult.
As long as a juvenile is being tried in a juvenile court and is convicted of a crime there, they will not enter the adult facilities until they turn the legal age of adulthood (exceptions apply). This makes a huge difference when it comes to rehabilitation, suppression of future crimes, and length of sentence.
It’s widely known that each correction system uses incarceration to punish offenders. However, rehabilitation is often the key concept of juvenile corrections, and not adult corrections. There are more incentive programs offered for adolescent criminals. For example, American Youth Prevention Forum states that
Services found to be effective in juvenile justice include: smaller, 15-25 bed, programs that reduce violent incidents; low staff/student ratios that lead to higher academic achievement; five hours of academic instruction per day (usually required by law); cognitive restructuring programs that, among other things, help young people understand thinking errors which get them into trouble; and gradual returns to the community from secure facilities through day treatment which reduces recidivism, results in higher levels of academic achievement and provides more connections to employers.
This kind of care is not fully available in the adult correctional system-it focuses stringently on punishment and offers only a handful of rehabilitation initiatives when compared to its juvenile counterpart. It’s a shame. Even though many first time offenders commit crimes before their 21st birthday, society contends such services would not work well with adult prisoners and would be a waste of taxpayer money at the benefit of “hardened” criminals.
The Sentencing Project–a national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing law and practice, and alternatives to incarceration–released a new fact sheet this month entitled “Facts About Prisons and Prisoners.” Check out the statistics below.
THE GROWING CORRECTIONS SYSTEM
• The number of inmates in state and federal prisons has increased nearly seven-fold from less than 200,000 in 1970 to 1,540,805 by midyear 2008. An additional 785,556 are held in local jails, for a total of 2.3 million.
• Between 2000 and 2007, the state prison population increased by an average annual rate of 1.6%, the federal population by 5.0 %, and jail population by 3.3%
• As of 2008, 1 of every 131 Americans was incarcerated in prison or jail.
• The number of persons on probation and parole has been growing dramatically along with institutional populations. There are now more than 7.3 million Americans incarcerated or on probation or parole, an increase of more than 290 percent since 1980.
• One in ten (10.4%) black males aged 25-29 was in prison or jail in 2008 as were 1 in 26 (3.8%) Hispanic males and 1 in 63 (1.6%) white males in the same age group.
• Nationally, 69 females per 100,000 women are serving a sentence in prison; 957 males per 100,000 men are in prison.
• The 2008 United States’ rate of incarceration of 762 inmates per 100,000 population is the highest in the world.
WHO IS IN OUR PRISONS AND JAILS?
• 93% of prison inmates are male, 7% female.
• As of 2008, there were 207,700 women in state and federal prison or local jail.
• 40% of persons in prison or jail in 2008 were black and 20% were Hispanic.
• 63% of jail inmates in 2008 were unconvicted and awaiting trial, compared to 51% in 1990.
• 82% of those sentenced to state prisons in 2004 were convicted of non-violent crimes, including 34% for drug offenses, and 29% for property offenses.
• 1 in 4 jail inmates in 2002 was in jail for a drug offense, compared to 1 in 10 in 1983; drug offenders constituted 20% of state prison inmates and 55% of federal prison inmates in 2001.
• Black males have a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives; Hispanic males have a 17% chance; white males have a 6% chance.
(numbers verified by the Bureau of Justice Statistics)
Start watching the first episode of San Quentin Film School above and visit here to continue it in its entirety.
Matt Kelley, Online Communications Manager at the Innocence Project and Change.org blogger, recently told his readers about the new Discovery Channel series, San Quentin Film School.
He writes :
The series, on the Discovery Channel, is an immensely watchable and moving portrait of life behind bars and a window on the potential for inmates to change through creative expression.
The full series can be seen here on YouTube. It’s cable TV so there’s some sensationalizing of prison life, but compared to COPS and CSI this show is a ray of light. The producers of “Paradise Lost” shopped the idea to two dozen prisons before San Quentin officials expressed interest. If only programs like this were replicated in prisons and jails across the country, we could reduce recidivism by showing prisoners that we care about their success and that there are countless paths to creative expression and productive work.
San Quentin is a leader in innovative programs like this – partnerships with nonprofits that improve the lives of prisoners and help in their successful reintegration into society. The Prison University Project has provided university education at the prison for 13 years and has inspired countless similar programs around the country.
Check out “San Quentin Film School.” If you like it, write to your state’s Department of Corrections and ask them if they do anything like it. Pressure from the outside can make things happen behind bars.