In some ways, it looked like a traditional graduation: Parents held hands and cried. So did a few graduates.
But rolled-up prison pants and bulky black boots peeked out from beneath the ivy-green graduation gowns. Among the new high school diploma holders were convicted thieves and drug dealers. The valedictorian is serving time for murder.
“You can’t quit on life!” Jasmiyah Whitehead said in her speech.
This summer, she and 18 other young women achieved a historic accomplishment in a state originally conceived of to help imprisoned English debtors start a new life: graduating from its first high school behind bars.
“You’ve done something no one in the state of Georgia has ever been able to do,” Warden Kathleen Kennedy told the graduating class. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened at Arrendale State Prison.”
The high school graduation at Arrendale, a razor-barbed-wire maximum-security prison in the Appalachian foothills, is part of a building prison reform movement sweeping into America’s most conservative corners.
The effort here in Georgia to combat a near 40 percent recidivism rate through education has emerged in part to curb budget-choking costs of nearly three decades of mass incarceration policies. Here in the Peach State, such policies have landed 1 out of every 13 Georgians under some sort of state correctional supervision.
The South, as a whole, has continued to have higher per capita prison populations than other regions, especially given steep prison population cuts in more liberal states such as New York and California.
But a slew of criminal reform laws in Georgia, including a $12 million prison education initiative in the state aimed at giving prisoners skills and motivation to reenter society as law-abiding citizens, has stopped the prison boom and reduced the prison population by 5,000 since 2013.
The shifting tenor of Southern justice also hints at a deeper shift in thinking for many US conservatives, even those who once championed the warehousing of America’s troublemakers. President Obama’s announcement of federal prison reforms this summer came on the heels of conservative state reforms already introduced in Georgia and Texas, where justice has traditionally been harsh and unforgiving. Critical to the shift is that Republican leaders such as Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry have won elections not in spite of an agenda that emphasizes the humanity of prisoners, but because of it.
Red-state conservatives are joining liberals in “asking more basic questions than just how to get people out of prison. They’re looking at how to make a real change, a more fundamental change in our philosophy, our goals, and the structure of decisionmaking,” says Howard Zehr, an Eastern Mennonite University criminal justice professor who pioneered “restorative justice,” which focuses on outcomes for both victims and perpetrators. “In essence, we’re swinging back from these incredible incarceration rates, the senselessness of that policy given the high recidivism rates, and finally getting our heads around how we ever imagined that prisons would make things better.”
Leading among today’s conservative prison reformers is two-term Governor Deal, who has made reducing Georgia’s prison population the core of his legacy. At a political conference earlier this year, he remarked, at one point in tears, that the state was not only failing the dispossessed, but was actually contributing to crime by failing to rehabilitate prisoners, who ended up being released back into their neighborhoods.
“The general philosophy is that if you want to reduce the recidivism rate, you should take advantage of the time that someone is incarcerated to improve their skills, so that when they are released they have a better opportunity to get a job,” says Deal in an interview with the Monitor. “Cost saving is certainly an important [driver of reforms], but most important is saving people’s lives in terms of not allowing them to return back to a life of crime, and giving them tools so they can become law-abiding citizens.”
To be sure, mass incarceration policies in the 1980s and ’90s did help curb alarming crime rates, especially in America’s urban cores.
According to estimates, a tripling of the US prison population only contributed to about 25 percent of a historic drop in crime rates since 1992, according to The Sentencing Project, meaning that a range of other factors played a larger role. Also swept up in the imprisonment movement were millions of nonviolent drug offenders, some who received long sentences under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Their long-term removal from their communities often caused more anguish than societal relief, according to studies such as one in 2010 by Yale’s Christopher Wildeman and Harvard’s Bruce Western. The two wrote, “US crime policy has, in the name of public safety, produced more vulnerable families and probably reduced the life chances of their children.”
Fear of crime and an urban crack epidemic roused lawmakers to enact laws that focused on longer sentences. Some of the architects of that strategy, including both former President Bill Clinton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have since expressed deep misgivings, and even deeper regrets about the 1994 sentencing law.
Conservative figures ranging from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Mr. Gingrich, from former Congressman (and ex-convict) Pat Nolan to Mr. Perry, all have done an about-face on how to best handle crime in the United States. A group called Right on Crime has worked to enable conservatives to talk about incarceration reforms without alienating voters. And Texas has seen results, closing four prisons and diverting thousands of nonviolent offenders into treatment programs, while its crime rate continues to decline.
In the 1980s and ’90s, “there was a feeding frenzy on both sides, with everyone trying to be as tough on crime as they could, and mandatory minimums became a reflex,” says former Hill staffer and lobbyist Kevin Ring, one of the architects of mandatory minimums for methamphetamine possession.
“It wasn’t like we sat down and thought about [the effects]. We just decided that we had to appear tougher than anyone else on a drug that was ravaging many states,” says Mr. Ring, whose thoughts on sentencing were informed by a 13-month federal prison stint for his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying and bribery scandal. “I feel like we weren’t really using our minds back then.”
In Georgia, Deal says the experiences of his son, a juvenile court judge, as well as his friendship with a paroled murderer who worked at the Governor’s Mansion, influenced his change in thinking on incarceration. The issue came to the fore when it became clear early in his tenure that the state, given current policies and population growth, needed to build two new prisons, at the combined cost of $248 million.
Those building plans were scrapped, at Deal’s behest. Instead, the state legislature created a new probation department to slow down the turnstile of parolees returning to prison for small infractions, as well as new diversion programs aimed at keeping troubled teenagers out of juvenile detention.
Critical to the effort has been the establishment of a new prison education department for those who commit serious crimes that warrant imprisonment.
The main goal is to reduce the prison population by fundamentally changing the role of prison from merely punishment to a serious effort at rehabilitation. “This is real school, not play school,” says the state’s new prison education director, Buster Evans.
At Arrendale, the teachers said the 19 young women grappled with the periodic table and Algebra II, with some threatening to drop out. Yet here they were, graduating with a Georgia education, ready to become nurses and retailers after they leave prison life behind, hopefully for good.
“I got arrested in 11th grade, and one of my first thoughts was, ‘Shoot, now I’m not gonna graduate,’ ” says Jazmine Smith, who says she ran with some “wrong boys” until the group was busted, and convicted, for robbery.
Her twin toddlers, dressed in identical red dresses, danced to “Ring Around the Rosie” as guests tackled a ham-and-shrimp buffet overseen by a small prison SWAT team. “I’m proud of her,” said her dad, Bryant Scandrick.
Along with establishing prison charter high schools and trade colleges that focus on everything from welding to movie production, the state is buying 3,000 tablets that prisoners can use for educational purposes.
At its core the new focus on diversion, treatment, probation reform, and prison education has come on the heels of many conservatives balancing the mounting costs of incarceration – both financial and mental – with the ethics of punishment. Overlaying the debate is a theory put forth by “The New Jim Crow” author Michelle Alexander: that prisons have become warehouses of the dispossessed, who are six times as likely to be black than white.
“Our crime rate has been dropping for 20 years, yet incarceration rates continue to rise, which means we may be starting to hit a point of diminishing returns,” says John Malcolm, director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. The question states are really facing is, “If we’re going to have somebody locked up, are we going to release them in the same state or worse than when we took them in?”
To be sure, there are deeper questions, says Mr. Zehr, about the depth and seriousness of red-state decarceration efforts.
Central among those questions is whether conservative states will pocket prison savings to spend on pet projects, or whether they will continue sustained investment in treatment and non-prison alternatives.
While criminal justice reform has become a rare bipartisan issue in a polarized nation ahead of a major presidential election, that political solidarity could quickly crumble, says Zehr.
A spike in violent crimes in a handful of cities, including Baltimore, and political rhetoric wielded by GOP candidates about “criminal Mexicans” also appear to have reignited fears among conservative voters, which could undermine reform efforts.
But behind the razor wire at Arrendale State Prison, those massive political stakes seemed far removed on a hot July morning when 19 prisoners became graduates.
Lauren Disher couldn’t stop smiling as she enjoyed the last few moments before guards would lead her back to her cell and her mother and friends would leave through the metal detectors.
Convicted for shoplifting and drug possession, Ms. Disher is on the tail end of her sentence. She’s already enrolled in a nursing program, which could not have happened without the high school diploma she held in her hand. Before prison, she said, her life was on a downward spiral that revolved around drugs and troublemaking friends. Now she’s determined to become somebody who contributes to society.
“I got my wish!” she cried, waving her diploma.
Her mom, Tina Disher, chimed in: “I’m ecstatic.”
It’s too early to know whether Georgia’s reforms will really work as hoped – including creating as much as $60 million in savings per year through the prison ed program alone.
But there’s no doubt that the programs are already having an effect on individual Georgians and their families.
Six weeks after graduating from the state’s first prison welding certificate program, John Turner, who had been incarcerated for 13 years, was released and went home to his north Georgia town.
A few days later, Mr. Turner was holding his first paycheck from a welding job. He is now recouping lost time with his son, who is 13, says Mr. Evans.
“We feel we have an opportunity here and we can’t squander it.”