Serving time and the community

For five years I have worked with men serving time in a variety of correctional facilities in the Eastern United States. This experience has shown me that we cannot afford to ignore conditions in our nation's prisons and jails. What goes on behind locked doors contributes significantly to the problem of crime within our communities.

Locking people up and ignoring them is beneficial to no one. A system that demeans and dehumanizes inmates and guards alike serves to breed crime, rather than to reduce it.

The majority of men and women who serve time are eventually released. Many, unfortunately, leave prison more angry and violent than when they went in. They have been hardened, rather than helped, by a system intended to ''correct'' them.

For centuries individuals have debated the relative merits of punishment vs. rehabilitation in trying to decide how to deal with criminal offenders. Often emotion has overshadowed reason and pure common sense.

It seems to me that the best correctional system is one based on an intelligent blend of restraint and improvement. Punishment can come in many forms. It does not have to be abusive or destructive, and it need not be at odds with the concept of rehabilitation.

The real question is not one of punishment vs. rehabilitation, but of love vs. hate. Society, like individuals, reaps what it sows. Only care and concern can break the cycle of hatred and revenge so prevalent today.

Harassment, boredom, frustration, overcrowding, and corruption are problems faced by most inmates. These problems need to be addressed.

Individuals must be treated with dignity and respect. Inmates, their families , and friends are human beings. They should not be stereotyped as evil, they should not be mistreated or taken advantage of in any way.

The men, women, and juveniles behind bars are there for many reasons. Not all are hardened criminals or real threats to society. Many are basically decent people who have made mistakes that will not be repeated. Some have been convicted of crimes they have not even committed. They need support and understanding.

Billions of dollars are spent on prison construction, maintenance, and staffing, but relatively little is made available for meaningful educational, counseling, or job-training programs. This is extremely shortsighted and unwise, as many are beginning to realize.

Inmates must be actively encouraged to improve themselves. They need a sense of usefulness. They need worthwhile skills to be able to support themselves and their families, both while in prison and upon release.

Mental and physical harassment and the humiliation of inmates lead to violence and destruction, including suicide. Nonstop baiting by guards has caused even mild-mannered individuals to strike out, needlessly compounding the problems of all. When such incidents occur, it is usually the inmate, rather than a guard, who is punished, causing further animosity and distrust.

Impartial, honest communication between prison officials and inmates would do much to improve conditions both inside prisons and out. People like to know where they stand and what they must do to progress through the system.

Inmates and their families frequently feel they are operating blindly. No one tells them anything, or they are told conflicting stories so that nothing is certain. When policies are arbitrarily changed or inconsistently applied, frustration and anger mount.

It is imperative that everyone give genuine thought and attention to the problems inside our prisons. They truly affect us all. We cannot afford to ignore them or pass the buck to others. We must be intelligently informed about what is going on, and work to improve prison conditions for the well-being of all.

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