Since writing American Justice?, inspired by my wife’s nightmarish experience with a punitive criminal justice system and a possible 16-year prison sentence, if she didn’t accept a plea for us to move and pay some legal costs, I have been looking at new developments in the prisons. Maybe something might help to change the grim statistics which show high incarceration rates that show the U.S. has more prisoners per capita than any other country – nearly 1 out of every 100 adults, about 2.3 million Americans.
For most prisoners, even if they get out, being incarcerated is like a life sentence, in that being branded a felon makes it more difficult if not impossible to get a good job, resulting in a struggle to survive that leads many back to crime. Then, too, for most prisoners, the experience is like being in a warehouse, with little or no learning, so any useful skills can be lost – another reason it can be hard to find a job.
However, a recent Time magazine article in the July 11-18 issue provides an example of another model for offering prisoners help and hope, which can turn them into useful citizens again, thereby reducing the costs to society. Essentially, this prison, San Quentin, located in Marin County near San Rafael, offers a series of programs where prisoners can get therapy, take educational courses, and learn new jobs. As the article points out, over 90% of prisoners eventually do return to society, so it make sense to help them learn the skills and self-control they need to follow the law when they get out.
The problem with most prisons is they offer at most a high school GED and training in manual labor, and they are located in remote areas, so prisoners can readily get disconnected from members of their family, who could be a vital link to helping them reintegrate with society.
But San Quentin is different. Out of about 4000 prisoners, it has about 3000 participants in various programs it offers. Among other things, the participants get therapy on overcoming their addictions or on managing their anger. They can gain writing and communications experience by working on the prison newspaper or radio station. They can take college courses.
Especially useful is a program where they learn software-engineering skills and even earn a little money by writing code for companies in the Silicon Valley, which enables them to have the needed skills to be employed in the high-tech job market when they are released. By 2017, the program hopes to enroll 200 participants at four California prisons, and then involve prisons outside the state. The results of these kinds of programs are promising, since studies suggest that prisoners who participate are less likely to return to prison, presumably because they are committing less or no crimes. Thus, this is a model that offers hope not only for the prisoners who go through these programs but for the prison system, the state, and the taxpayers who foot the bill, by reducing the costs of incarceration.
In American Justice?, I suggest a number of other solutions for improving the criminal justice system, from the actions of the police and the courts to corrections. This is one more useful approach I would add to the solutions I suggest.
In future blogs, I’ll talk about other problems I have found in the criminal justice system, and what to do about them.
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