View From the Inside: Inmate Study Group Gives Advice on Solving US Crime Problem

IN the heated national debate over solutions to crime and violence in society, should we listen to the suggestions of Ted Garrety, Robert Lena, Vernard Ansari, and Ken Gauthier?

And what about Robert Pacheco, Arthur Legge, Robert Gaumond, Robert McClary, and Toni Olszewski? Do they want more prisons built to house America's worst felons for life? Should drugs be legalized? Can rehabilitation take place?

These men are inmates at Norfolk Correctional Institution, a medium-security state prison outside of Boston. They are part of a unique master's degree program sponsored by Boston University (BU) in the prison and taught by Paule Verdet, a retired sociology professor.

``These are intelligent men. Most have college degrees, some earned before prison,'' Ms. Verdet says.

According to Ann Marchitelli, the principal of the adult learning center at Norfolk, 73 percent of the inmates enter the prison with skills below the eighth-grade level in reading and math.

The range of crimes of these inmate-students includes murder, sex offenses, manslaughter, and drug offenses. Sentences are from double life to less than three years. Most of society would conclude that these convicted felons, with or without academic skills, got what they deserved. The men broke laws, were tried, convicted, and sentenced. The justice system works.

But in a larger context, US prisons have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, plus a 67 percent recidivism rate.

Many penologists conclude that the US justice system, including rehabilitation, is not working. They say the pillars of society - families, schools, and churches - are not reckoning with the wrenching social changes contributing to crime. Despite increased law- enforcement efforts, tougher laws, and hundreds of costly new prisons, crime rates remain high. Public safety has not increased.

Will more prisons reduce crime and provide safety? ``No,'' says Mr. Garrety, seated in the Norfolk classroom. ``Prisons are not held accountable for what they don't do. It's called the `department of corrections,' which implies rehabilitation. But a prison is an ineffective bureaucracy protecting the status quo instead of innovating. It puts out defective goods, yet still survives.''

To lower recidivism rates, Garrety urges, make prison operations private. The goal has to be to reduce recidivism by teaching marketable skills to inmates, perhaps with business partnerships to train employees for specific companies. ``When prisons are under fiscal pressure,'' he says, ``rehabilitation programs are usually eliminated.''

Mr. Gaumond says he and others in the class offered to help other inmates earn their high school equivalency degrees. The prison administration said no. ``We are not worthless just because of our problems,'' he says.

What prisons do, these inmates say, is exercise control over lives, but little else. ``As convicted felons,'' Mr. Pacheco says, ``we are targeted as failures, guys who adjust well to prison life. But there's little help to make us good citizens when we get out.''

Peter, who did not want his last name used, says many inmates learn ``how to make something of themselves in spite of the system.'' Because of the troubles that resulted in his crime, he says, ``Coming here was like a salvation for me.''

Like Peter, whose master's thesis includes exploring Christian attitudes toward criminal offenders, the inmates in the BU course are all motivated to learn. ``Education is rehabilitation,'' Mr. Lena says. ``The more education and insights I get, the more I want.''

Mr. Ansari, who has two master's degrees and will be released in two years, says the educational process has made him ``like a squirrel collecting nuts.'' Born and raised in the inner city on welfare, he says, ``I can't be rehabilitated. I was never habilitated to the white world in the first place. The playing field was never level. I still have animosities toward the white world, but now I'm not going to act on them.''

Because prisons are usually in isolated places, inmates say this reduces contact with the public and volunteers. Over decades public ignorance about prisons increases. There is little dialogue with inmates who need help in changing attitudes.

``Believe me,'' Mr. Gauthier says, ``there are a lot of guys in here who really belong here. But prisons are filled with drug offenders. With no work release programs to help guys adjust and learn skills, they go back to dealing [drugs] again when they leave.''

The inmates generally disapprove of mandatory life sentence for felons with three convictions. Because the circumstances of each crime have different interpretations, the inmates say the time, money, and effort should be aimed at correcting the causes of crime. ``If felons get life imprisonment, what about all the white-collar criminals from the savings-and-loan scandal?'' Gauthier asks.

``Violent criminals should be punished,'' Mr. Barclay says, ``but I think the judges' discretion in sentencing, based on the severity of the facts, should be used.''

Barclay believes many hopeless inmates with no skills find prison comfortable. ``Meals are provided,'' he says, ``and there's no responsibility. For people who have never had a roof over their head, its basically not that bad. But education is the positive role model here for me.''

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