The View From Inside: Why We Need Prison Reform

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The View From Inside: Why We Need Prison Reform

Post  Yoke on Sat Apr 04, 2009 1:04 pm

Michael Santos, a federal inmate and the author of "Inside: Life Behind Bars in America."

I am a long-term prisoner and I welcome this privilege of introducing myself to readers of I look forward to contributing articles that offer my perspective on America's prison system. Readers can expect me to respond openly and honestly to all questions or comments.

Since 1987 I've been locked inside prisons of every security level, from high-security United States penitentiaries to minimum-security federal prison camps. I was 23 when the term began. Now I'm 45. Although I had never been incarcerated before, and I did not have a history of weapons or violence, my judge imposed a 45-year sentence. That sanction followed my convictions for crimes related to the distribution of cocaine.

With more than 21 continuous years of prison behind me, I've had considerable time and opportunity to contemplate policies that govern our nation's prisons. We need change. This system of warehousing human beings perpetuates cycles of failure.

In the Second Chance Act of 2007, the United States Congress made some telling findings about America's prison system. Taxpayers spent $59 billion each year to cover the costs associated with confining more than 2.3 million people. Despite the massive public expenditure, Congress found that more than six of every ten people who concluded their sentences returned to confinement after their release.

The costs to society of maintaining this system are many, both in financial and human terms. The financial costs necessitate the diversion of funds from education, health care, and other social programs more beneficial to the advancement of an enlightened society. The Pew Report recently published findings showing that state spending on corrections has increased at a faster rate than all agencies other than Medicaid.

Despite the high costs, recidivism rates show that corrections fail to take place. To improve these dismal results, we need reforms that would bring fundamental changes to America's prison system. Rather than relying exclusively on the threat of further punishments and more oppressive conditions, administrators ought to implement an incentive system that would encourage more prisoners to work toward earning gradual increases in freedom through merit.

This idea of earning freedom is not such a novel concept. Nor is it radical. In the mid-1980s, former Chief Justice Warren Burger delivered a commencement speech to a graduating class from Pace University. In Factories with Fences, Chief Justice Burger wrote that we needed reforms that would encourage prisoners to earn and learn their way to freedom.

More recently, on August 9, 2003, Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered a keynote speech to the American Bar Association. In that speech, Justice Kennedy called for prison reform. Specifically, he said that "A decent and free society, founded in respect for the individual, ought not to run a system with a sign at the entrance for inmates saying, ‘Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.'"

Prisoners in the institutions where I have been confined could behave in myriad ways to aggravate the conditions of their confinement. No mechanism existed, however, that would allow the prisoners to distinguish themselves formally in a positive way. That fundamental flaw in America's prison system extinguished hope for many. That loss of hope led to poor adjustment decisions. Poor adjustments led to high recidivism rates. The cycle of failure continued.

We need prison reforms in America.
Those reforms should begin with an introduction of mechanisms through which prisoners could earn gradual increases in freedom.


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