Conference on Prisons

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As I worked with the inmates, I began to see things about prison life that troubled me. What bothered me was that in spite of all the therapy and activities, inmates were not being prepared to return to the real world. Many might say, “I don’t want them returned to the real world.” The fact remains that most inmates will find themselves back on the streets sooner or later. If we as society do not want our tax dollars to continue to be spent on free room and board for offenders, then we don’t just need to help them not to offend; we need to help them accept responsibility for every aspect of their lives. They must be able to hold down a job (show up and do the work with integrity). They also need to learn how to manage their money and pay their bills. In other words, they should be able to take control of every aspect of their lives completely on their own initiative.


James, one of the inmates I worked with, was incarcerated at the age of sixteen. He was in his early thirties when I met him. I don’t think he was bad by nature, but his early life was difficult. When I asked him about getting out he looked sad and said, “Mrs. Sweet, if they let me out I don’t think I would be able to survive outside these walls.” As it turns out James would never have to worry about that. He was declared ineligible to remain in the Patuxent Program (I suspect they caught him doing drugs) and was sent to another institution. Shortly after his transfer he was found dead in his cell.



What happens is they get what they call “three ‘hots’ and a cot.” They get a free (to them) roof over their heads and three meals a day. They are told what they can or must do each day. There are opportunities to work or participate in activities that might be helpful to them, but very little is mandatory because it is much easier to keep them locked up in their cells and keep them reasonably content. To that end they are allowed to get family or friends to buy them brand new televisions that must be delivered in their original unopened cartons (a safety precaution so that drugs or weapons will not be smuggled into the prison). Each 5X8’ cell has normally one, but sometimes two TVs .



Family and friends are allowed to bring a limited number of cartons of cigarettes to the inmates. The cigarettes are used for barter among the inmates. Now I grant you we may want to kill them, but in this instance, those who choose not to smoke and might actually be concerned about their health, are trapped in with all the smoke.


I think it would be safe to estimate that it costs the American taxpayer about $20,000 to $25,000 a year to incarcerate one person. Last year we had more then 800,000 inmates incarcerated in the US. Using the lower cost estimate that would be $160 million dollars a year that we spend on three hots and a cot.” That wouldn’t be so bad, but many of these people are unable to make the transition to life “on the streets”.



The more I thought about the issues, the more it seemed to make sense to me to create a system that would encourage inmates to take more responsibility for themselves and to awaken them to the burden put on society for their incarceration. What would happen if every inmate were required to have some kind of a job? Jobs could be created by industries that now send their business overseas and could be assigned a fair and reasonable wage. The institution could receive payment from the employer for work accomplished. Inmates in turn would be required to relinquish from their ‘paychecks’ the amount of money needed to pay back the $55 a day it costs to give them 3 hots and a cot. Any extra money they earn can be banked or invested for use upon their release.


In the early 90s I attended a conference on prison reform. The Attorney General of Maryland, John Curran, spoke to several hundred assembled participants about the need to reform the system. He talked about requiring the inmates to hold a job and to learn responsibility. This was precisely what I had been thinking about. I stood up in front of all those people and told him that if he would move forward with such a plan, I would work for him as a volunteer to make it happen. His answer amounted to a non-answer. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the message was that he didn’t really mean what he had been saying. I was speechless.


When we broke for lunch, a man approached me and introduced himself as the warden of a Maryland prison. He asked if I understood what had just happened between Mr. Curran and me. Of course I didn’t. He went on to tell me that incarcerating criminals is big business. It has its roots in the earliest days of this nation and it creates jobs. If we were to move forward with what the Attorney General was suggesting, there would ultimately be fewer people in prison and that would result in higher unemployment. I was speechless.


I researched the subject to see if there was any truth to it.





By the end of the twentieth century, the United States had nearly two million people confined in its prisons or jails, representing ten or twenty times more of its population behind bars than that of most other postindustrial nations. Although these numbers increased more than fourfold in the last thirty years, imprisonment in various forms has played an important role in the American experience for more then five hundred years, helping to determine its history and shaping the society. This history helps to explain the paradox of a country that prides itself on being the citadel of individual liberty yet imprisons more of its citizens per capita than any other nation in the world. It also provides a warning about the future, for even as the United States epitomizes and sanctifies democracy, it continues to build a huge and growing complex of durable totalitarian institutions. This massive use of imprisonment has made American society highly dependent on prisons both economically and politically as well as socially.

I have never been able to get my mind around that experience and others like it. I may be naïve, but, as stupid as it sounds, I still believe we can find a better way.