Jan 302012

In October of 1990, I heard a prison cell door clang shut behind me for the first time.  Reality struck.  Time stopped.  It was easier for me than for many, because I served only nine years.  Ever since I have searched for ways to convey the experience to others, who have not been there themselves.  I never could do so to my complete satisfaction, but in a recent article, Adam Gopnik has.  Here is a very small part of it:

man_behind_barsA prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly undramatic—the reported stories fail to grab us, because, for the most part, nothing happens. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades. It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.

That’s why no one who has been inside a prison, if only for a day, can ever forget the feeling. Time stops. A note of attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia—anxiety and boredom and fear mixed into a kind of enveloping fog, covering the guards as much as the guarded. “Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard, / Some of us are prisoners, some of us are guards,” Dylan sings, and while it isn’t strictly true—just ask the prisoners—it contains a truth: the guards are doing time, too. As a smart man once wrote after being locked up, the thing about jail is that there are bars on the windows and they won’t let you out. This simple truth governs all the others. What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment. For American prisoners, huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world—Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teen-agers to life imprisonment—time becomes in every sense this thing you serve…

Inserted from <The New Yorker>

I urge you to click the link and read the entire article, especially if you think that prison is somehow like a country club.  You may think that prisoners deserve abuse, or that it just does not matter to you, but it does.  Almost every person locked behind bars will be released.  They will walk your streets.  They will live in your neighborhoods.  The quality of care and opportunities for prisoners to rebuild themselves, as productive citizens, who obey the law, has a direct effect on your safety and that of your family.  If you can’t support making prisons places to restore people, because it’s the right thing to do. do it because it’s the selfish thing to do.

Oct 042011

The cost of building, maintaining and staffing prisons has grown exponentially over the years, so much so that Oregon has launched a new Commission on Public Safety to examine the costs and benefits of current practices and recommend improvements.

4prison costThe district attorneys of Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties recently dropped by to complain that we’ve been awfully critical of public-safety policies that have, after all, seen crime plunge to the lowest level in 40 years.

Well, yes. But the DAs missed the point of our frustration, which is that Oregon has become a state that is more than willing to cut a child’s school year, but can’t possibly reduce a man’s prison sentence. Public safety — especially prisons and the sentencing policies that drive their costs — have been shielded from the cuts, the scrutiny and the reforms that have hit every other significant public service in Oregon.

That’s why we were so supportive of a new high-profile state commission on public safety in an editorial that prompted local DAs Mike Schrunk, John Foote and Bob Herman to come by for a friendly visit. It’s also why that it’s fine by us that the commission, which holds its first meeting today, doesn’t include DAs or anyone else whose first reflex is to defend the status quo. The commission will be led by Chief Justice Paul De Muniz of the Oregon Supreme Court and former Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

For 20 years prosecutors and victims’ rights group have taken the initiative on criminal sentencing. They’ve gotten what they wanted, including mandatory sentencing for major crimes against people and recently enhanced sentences for some property crimes. And yes, all this has helped reduce crime. Measure 11 has worked as advertised.

But it’s time to face the costs. Oregon’s prison system has grown into a $1.6 billion enterprise with 4,500 employees and 14,000 inmates. Oregon already spends nearly a dime of every general fund dollar on prisons…

Inserted from <The Oregonian>

Remember that the vast majority of people sentenced to prison terms will be released and return to live in our communities.  When that time comes, however long their sentences, the only thing that matters is whether or not they are still a threat to our communities.

Mandatory sentencing mitigates against reform.  As a prisoner, I took the first step toward habilitation by joining a program, only because I hoped doing do would get me released sooner.  To my great surprise, that program inspired me to rebuild myself into the person I wanted to become.  Eleven years of living as a productive citizen, since my release, demonstrates my success.  However, had I had a mandatory sentence, I might never have taken that first step and returned to my community, just as messed up as I was when I entered prison, but more bitter.

Spending money on helping prisoners and other offenders reform is a far better investment that longer incarceration.  It enhances public safety, and because it costs so much less, it leaves Oregon more to spend on education and community services that improve our quality of life.