Visit a prison, make the world safer?

More governors and prosecutors are visiting inmates in prison as part of several initiatives to improve criminal justice. The experience helps create more empathy among those who incarcerate people.

President Barack Obama speaks to reporters during a 2015 visit to the federal prison outside Oklahoma City.

An estimated 1 in 4 women in the United States currently have a family member in prison. That is a startling statistic about the level of crime as well as the nation’s propensity to lock up criminals. Yet behind the numbers lies another reality: Millions of family members who visit their loved ones behind bars have learned the reality of the prison experience – for both inmates and guards. And out of that experience, many have become advocates for reform, such as in sentencing, reentry programs, solitary confinement, overcrowding, and even victim restitution.

Some also push for others to share this experience, especially lawmakers, governors, and prosecutors who make decisions about incarcerating people. Many if not most of these officials have never set foot in a jail or prison.

The advocates believe regular prison visits would give officials up-close empathy about prison life. It might compel them to make changes in their law enforcement work or in shaping policy. Movies and TV shows depicting prisons are no substitute for listening to real inmates and guards.

In 2015, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. The visit may have helped launch several initiatives. In 2017, a bipartisan group of governors agreed to engage closely with people involved with criminal justice. At least 15 of them have visited prisons. The Vera Institute of Justice also began to offer prison “field trips” to community members such as clergy and teachers. Then in July, the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums set a challenge to all elected policy leaders to personally visit correctional facilities.

On Monday, 39 district attorneys around the country joined in a pledge to visit prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers as well as send their staff. The aim is “to embed in the culture of DAs’ offices the recognition that decisions to incarcerate someone should never be taken lightly.”

“No prosecutor should be putting people in places they haven’t seen or walked through,” says Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, the group that launched the effort.

Will this idea work? Something is certainly needed to improve criminal justice. More than two-thirds of inmates released from state prisons are rearrested within three years.

Face-to-face encounters between inmates and those responsible for sending them to prison might help. Time in prison can serve many aspects of justice, such as an opportunity for rehabilitation. But add in some empathy, and the nation’s high incarceration rate might go down. You can’t fix something if you choose to ignore it.

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