Fifteen to Life: 15 Ways to Fix the Criminal Justice System

15 Ways to Fix the Criminal Justice System

The degree to which a society is civilized can be judged by entering its prisons.

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

We’ve all heard the statistics: America incarcerates a greater percentage of its citizens than any other nation in the world, overtaking longtime front runner Russia in 2000. Although the growth has finally stopped, incarceration rates have skyrocketed 500 percent since 1970. Ever since 1980, the incarceration rate has been higher than it was during the height of the Al Capone mobster era. Nine percent of all black adults are in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole. An estimated 1.5 million children have a parent behind bars. And according to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in every 32 Americans is in prison, on probation, or on parole.

Something’s gone wrong.

In many states, the “corrections” system has explicitly given up on correction. In 1976, California removed the word “rehabilitation” from its criminal code and passed a law stating, “The purpose of imprisonment is punishment.” In 1970, 73 percent of Americans polled thought that rehabilitation was the primary purpose of imprisonment; by 1995, only 26 percent agreed. Justice has been emphasized over and against mercy.

But Christians can’t separate the two. For us, rehabilitation must always remain a key purpose of prison. We’re not allowed to give up on anybody. So here are 15 areas for us to focus on as we seek to rehabilitate both the system and the people within it. Some of these remedies can be stereotyped as “soft” and others as “hard,” but opposing the two approaches makes no sense. Hard approaches make soft ones possible—no prison can rehabilitate when inmates, guards, and visitors are unsafe—and soft approaches make hard ones effective. It’s unlikely that anyone quoted in this article will agree with every single proposal, but most of them reinforce one another.

1. Visit Prisoners

This is the most basic of all “fixes.” We hear it in Matthew 25:36: “I was in prison, and ye came unto me”; it’s one of the seven corporal works of mercy. But few of us actually schlep out to prisons to see Christ behind bars. Peter Nixon has been visiting a minimum-security jail in California with a ministry team from his parish for two years. He explains, “I began to feel this call—[that’s] the only way to describe it—to take on the visiting of the imprisoned. I didn’t really want to do it,” he laughs. “I’m a fairly well-educated, middle-class guy. What could I have to say to a bunch of guys in prison? But the call was something I couldn’t say no to.”

Prison ministry is full of moments that remind participants of the visceral, real-life truth of the Gospel. Nixon recalls, “I was preaching on the Advent readings for yesterday, and talking about Advent as a time of waiting. [I said,] ‘You guys can teach us about waiting because that’s what you do here. But you know you’re going home, so you have that sense of horizon that a lot of Christians in the world don’t have. ‘ ” Nixon didn’t know that one of the men in the congregation had been scheduled for release before Christmas, but his release had just been postponed until after the holiday. “In the prayers of the faithful, he said, ‘Thank God for the preacher, because I think I understand better why this is happening to me, and I can bear this a little better,'” Nixon said. “You touch one person—they can take that comfort with them.”

Nixon advises, “You shouldn’t fear to do this because you don’t personally have any experience with incarceration or crime. If you feel you’re being called to this, God will give you the tools you need. I wasn’t doing prayer services or preparing sermons before this. You know, with the scandal this summer, how ugly things were getting. I would go out to the jail, and it would become very clear why I’m a Christian and what I believe. I’m thankful every day—I feel like I get more out of it than these guys do. Maybe they would disagree.”

2. Treat Prisoners Like People, Not Logistical Problems

Visiting prisoners is one way to respond to prisoners as people rather than as statistics, obstacles, or monsters. In many ways our whole lives are struggles to become more like humans; in the no-rehabilitation age, prisons are places where that struggle is often denied.

Theodore Dalrymple, author of Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, has served as a doctor in an English prison for twelve years. In that time, he’s seen great improvements in the physical conditions of the prison—”When I started, some of them didn’t have lavatories in their cells, which they now all have”—but rising levels of violence and intimidation. He found that many of the prisoners seemed unable to imagine a life different from the one they were currently leading.

But when their imaginations were sparked, prisoners began to change. Dalrymple recalls, “We used to have a writer who came in to teach prisoners how to write. He found that they would write [their autobiographies] quite fluently until they confronted [their crime]—then they got writer’s block. It was, in a way, like psychotherapy for them: They genuinely and gradually came to the realization that what they had been telling themselves for years was not true.” They had to stop blaming their surroundings and take responsibility for their lives. Dalrymple argues that one way to provoke rehabilitation is to offer prisoners the opportunity to broaden their horizons, encouraging them to hear concerts, bringing lecturers to the prison, and allowing prisoners to keep pets. These very basic recognitions of common humanity would, he says, “likely make them better people, and happier, too.”

Where humanity is suppressed, it struggles to find an escape route. Ted Conover, a journalist who served as a prison guard for his book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, found that even though pets were prohibited in Sing Sing, the inmates managed to keep animals. One convict kept a cat; another even made a home for a large spider. Pets offered inmates the opportunity to care for something, and the two meanings of “care” are responsibility and love—the key building blocks of rehabilitation.

Prison disconnects people. Sometimes it disconnects prisoners from criminal networks or no-good friends, which is what it’s supposed to do. But at least as often, prison disconnects people from the family and community members who would be able to offer them the hope of reconciliation. And if no connections are maintained or forged between prisoners and the outside world, when the prisoners are released they have nowhere to go and no one’s expectations to meet.

Many prisoners welcome the opportunity to reconnect and give back to the communities they’ve wronged. Jennifer Wynn, director of the Prison Visiting Project of the Correctional Association of New York and author of Inside Rikers: Stories from the World’s Largest Penal Colony, found that prisoners on Rikers Island love cooking scores of Thanksgiving turkeys for New York City’s soup kitchens, battered women’s shelters, and AIDS hospices. Each Thanksgiving, she stays up late with the prisoners stirring huge vats of soup and making stuffing. Wynn notes, “I think self-esteem is built through accomplishment. [The Thanksgiving cooking] gives them an opportunity to accomplish something. They’ll say, “It makes me feel good to give something back, to make amends.” And, she added practically, “they’re learning a marketable skill.”

3. Promote Reconciliation Between Crime Victims and Offenders

Helping prisoners maintain connections to “the larger community” may seem too hazy, too abstract a means of avoiding the hard fact that most prisoners have damaged particular people in that community. But it’s possible to strengthen community ties while also spurring penitence.

And it’s possible to return offenders to the community while supporting, rather than ignoring, the victims of crime. Right now, victims often feel used by the criminal justice system. As Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, argues, “What’s wrong with prisons is really a symptom of a deeper problem: the relationship that’s been broken between the offender and the victim. We deal with crime as a legal problem, but it’s also and more importantly a moral problem.”

Nolan points out that there are all kinds of practical ways we could show support for victims of crime, but we too rarely do: “Just go over and repair the door, so they can feel secure at night. Or stay with them for several nights until they can have more sense of security. Victims tell me they often feel left out by the Church. People will literally cross the street after Mass because they don’t want to hear it.”

When a victim feels that other people acknowledge the damage that’s been done to him, he’s more likely to be ready to speak with the criminal. Many programs set up meetings between victim and offender, to “personalize the crime to the offender in a way that the system never does,” Nolan says. The programs prepare both victim and offender beforehand, so that the situation can foster sincere repentance and forgiveness rather than the mouthing of pious clichés.

He explains, “Many victims tell me they go into that dialogue not intending to forgive. They want to give the offender a piece of their mind; and they’re entitled to it. And yet, when they see sincere repentance on the face of the offender,” many are moved to forgiveness. “It’s truly the work of the Holy Spirit.”

4. Promote Reconciliation Between Offenders and the Local Community

Nolan points to specific programs that bring victim, offender, and community together, such as Vermont’s Reparative Probation Program, which won a 1998 Ford Foundation award for innovations in American government: “Volunteers from the community bring together the victim, the offender, the families of both, the witnesses, and whoever feels they’ve been impacted by the crime or is interested in that crime, and they have a discussion of that crime. It’s not the traditional adversarial [format] of the courtroom: The victim is given a chance to talk. Then they discuss possible ways to make things right, and end up with a reparative contract that they all sign.” In a typical reparative contract, a vandal might agree to write an apology and pay for the damaged property. Contracts can include pledges to return to school, get and keep a job (the community members at the meeting pledge to help with the job hunt), pay child support, do community service, or perform services directly for the victim. Vermont claims that almost 85 percent of the offenders who go before reparative probation boards fulfill their contracts.

Although Nolan notes that these programs only work with carefully chosen offenders, he adds that “it’s not limited to nonviolent cases.” The Texas victim-offender dialogue program, for example, includes violent criminals. Nolan suggests that reparative contracts, because of their emphasis on strengthening communities, are especially effective in cases stemming from racial hatred—an underlying cause that a traditional prison sentence, where the offender often spends his time with members of racial gangs, is likely to exacerbate.

5. End the Drug War

A lot of things are illegal, but we don’t have a “war” on them. The immense scope of today’s drug war can be blamed in large part on mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes, which are based solely on the weight of the drugs involved. In 1993, conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist called mandatory sentences “a good example of the law of unintended consequences”; the next year, Justice Anthony Kennedy concurred, saying in congressional testimony, “I think I’m in agreement with most judges in the federal system that mandatory minimums are an imprudent, unwise, and often unjust mechanism for sentencing.”

The laws, many of which were passed in a mid-1980s flurry of antidrug legislation following basketball star Len Bias’s fatal overdose, have led to ten-year sentences for people who no one believes actually dealt any drugs. These unlucky “criminals” drove an aunt to a drug dealer’s house (Brenda Valencia, no prior convictions, 12.5 years) or agreed to sell cocaine to an undercover agent and then backed out (Gary Fannon, no prior convictions, life without parole).

Mandatory minimums were supposed to put drug kingpins away for good. Instead, kingpins bargain with prosecutors, trading evidence against other dealers for lighter charges, and leave the small-timers to face the mandatory sentences. In 1994, the Federal Judicial Center found that more than 85 percent of those receiving mandatory minimum sentences in fiscal year 1992 were low-level offenders, not kingpins, not even middle managers. The same year, the Department of Justice found that 36 percent of federal drug offenders—21 percent of all federal inmates—had no record of violence, no involvement in sophisticated criminal activity, and no prior imprisonment. The average sentence of these inmates? Seven years. The report stated, “The relative harm of drug trafficking has been elevated above that of almost every serious crime other than murder.”

John J. DiIulio Jr., an expert on prison management and former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, started out as a staunch drug-warrior who penned articles titled “Prisons Are a Bargain, By Any Measure” and “Let ‘Em Rot.” He argued, “Many [drug offenders] would be and should be incarcerated even if the antidrug laws did not exist.” But in 1993, he began a series of studies that—along with other research being done around the same time—caused him to change his views.

In 1999, he told Reason magazine that although he still supported drug prohibition, he now believed that “with respect to these drug offenders, the mandatory minimums have begun to go haywire.” He said his new position was “coerced by the data.”

The data told him that, contrary to his prior belief, many drug offenders were not violent criminals. In 1993, DiIulio and Anne Morrison Piehl surveyed New Jersey inmates and found that 30 percent reported that drug offenses were the only crimes they had committed in the four months before their incarceration. Sure, but inmates lie, right? DiIulio and Piehl took that into account but concluded, “If even half of the inmates who report that their only crime was selling drugs are telling the truth, then 15 percent of New Jersey’s spending on prisons is being devoted to ‘sending a message’ about drug dealing.”

The data kept coming: In 1997, Piehl found that two-thirds of Massachusetts’s recent drug offenders had never been convicted of a violent crime. Next, DiIulio, Piehl, and sociologist Bert Useem published a survey of about 1,500 new prisoners in New York, Arizona, and New Mexico. They found that 28 percent of New York’s new male prisoners were drug-only offenders, along with 18 percent in Arizona and 15 percent in New Mexico.

By 1999, DiIulio was arguing that mandatory minimums should go; nonviolent drug offenders should be freed; drug treatment, probation, and parole should be strengthened; federal sentencing guidelines should be made more realistic; and faith-based antiviolence and restorative justice programs should be promoted.

In 2000, about one in four prisoners in the United States was locked up for drug offenses. The percentage of prisoners serving time for drug crimes has risen steeply since 1980. Reason points out, “As more and more drug offenders have been imprisoned, it is likely that the percentage who are not predatory criminals has risen.”

After writing Newjack, Ted Conover found that people constantly asked him how he thought the system could be fixed. His response began, “First, states need to repeal mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses…. I think that most prison time for drug possession does more harm—to families as well as offenders—than good. New York and California are just beginning to give first-time drug offenders treatment instead of prison sentences, and that’s a positive development.”

The current rush to imprison users rather than treat them has caused our prisons to fill beyond their capacity. Very little rehabilitation can take place when four prisoners are jammed into single-occupancy cells, when there are too many people trying to crowd into too few education or ministry or job-training programs. Moreover, as Washington Post columnist William Raspberry has pointed out, our drug policies have created neighborhoods where going to prison is commonplace—ordinary, accepted—and breaking the law is even more common. Shifting away from automatically imprisoning drug users would ease the unbearable pressure on the prison system and make all the other remedies in this article much more likely to succeed. Innovative leaders like former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson have recognized this fact; unfortunately, national leaders are too afraid of being seen as “soft on crime” to take a realistic approach to drug abuse.

6. Build New Prisons Near Cities

Wall Street Journal reporter Joseph T. Hallinan noticed a disturbing trend as he reported on prison issues in the 1990s: Prisons were becoming big moneymakers. Texas towns reeling from the 1980s oil bust, coal-country towns seeking a new industry—all were finding that prisons could make them rich again. So in the time-honored pork tradition, politicians fought to get prisons in their counties as they had once fought for military bases. More and more prisons were built in the American hinterlands, far from the cities where most of the crimes were committed. A 1993 study in New York found that white, rural upstate districts had received more than 89 percent of the money spent by the state’s Department of Corrections; 89 percent of prison employees hailed from those districts; but 70 percent of the state’s inmates hailed from the Big Apple.

The resulting problems should have been easily predicted: Prisoners were shipped away from any sources of support. Their families couldn’t afford to visit or couldn’t find transportation (since some rural prisons are not even accessible by bus). Educational opportunities were few. The resources for rehabilitating prisoners—the familiar churches, the charitable organizations, the drug-recovery groups—are concentrated in the cities, but the prisoners were somewhere else. Prison became an even more isolating experience, and prisoners were thereby left with even fewer ropes to cling to when they were finally released.

Prisoners and guards came from starkly different backgrounds. In Sing Sing, Conover found that some of his fellow guards were related to prisoners or had family members who had done time—because Sing Sing is close to New York City. In rural prisons, guards and prisoners are tempted to view one another as almost different species; racism, animosity, and violence flourish in that atmosphere.

Perhaps most troubling, the shift to rural prisons has given some towns and some politicians a strong vested interest in long sentences and stiff penalties for even minor crimes. Rural prison towns reap the economic benefits of the prison boom, while the cities suffer the consequences of shattered families, derailed lives, and absent fathers. This is a recipe for a criminal justice policy designed to maximize imprisonment without any incentive to foster rehabilitation. Some of the reluctance to overhaul the drug laws discussed above may spring from these perverse incentives.

7. Free the Innocent

This is the sort of reform everyone clamors to support… in the abstract. But when the discussion shifts to specific policy changes, things get more contentious.

The first and most obvious remedy is to support groups like the Innocence Project, whose teams of law students comb through the evidence in cases where DNA testing might lead to exoneration. We need more groups that investigate convictions, especially in the often-overlooked cases that do not involve the death penalty or DNA evidence.

Jeralyn Merritt, a criminal defense lawyer in Denver who teaches a course on wrongful convictions at Denver University’s College of Law, describes cases in which men were imprisoned based on lab fraud; for example, a chemist named Fred Zain may have been responsible for as many as 182 false convictions. West Virginia, where Zain served frequently as an expert witness, ultimately paid $6.5 million to innocent people convicted on Zain’s testimony. The chemist was indicted for fraud, but he died before the case came to trial. One of Zain’s victims, William Harris, was sentenced to 20 years in prison at age 17, when he was convicted of rape in a trial based on Zain’s false testimony. After seven years in prison, he was able to get his case reinvestigated, the DNA match was disproved, and a detective who testified in the case was convicted of perjury. Harris won a cash settlement of almost a million dollars. (“Such a nice kid… he wasn’t even bitter,” Merritt marvels.)

In 1996, the National Institute of Justice (the research arm of the Department of Justice) studied the cases of 28 men whose wrongful convictions were exposed through DNA evidence. The men had served an average of seven years in prison. Faulty eyewitness testimony was one of the most common factors that sent the innocent men to prison. Merritt explains, “That’s not because the eyewitnesses are lying; it’s because they are mistaken, largely because of the techniques police used.” After the report was released, the Justice Department set up a task force on which Merritt served that compiled a guide for law enforcement officers to use when interviewing witnesses. “The police are behind it, because no one wants an innocent person to go to jail,” she adds. “If an innocent person is in jail, the real perpetrator is still out there and could strike again.”

So we need to keep training cops to use the Justice Department guidelines. We can also check up on them by videotaping all interrogations and confessions. In September 2002, a Charlottesville, Virginia, detective was fired and sentenced to 90 days in jail for assault after he was caught on tape beating a suspect. Many law-enforcement officers support taping interrogations, since the same camera that put the Charlottesville detective away can also exonerate a cop wrongly charged with violence or intimidation.

Merritt offers another major fix: Extend the time limits on filing habeas corpus claims. This may sound like legal detail work, but it’s crucially important to many prisoners. The 1996 antiterrorism act prohibited prisoners from filing these claims more than a year after their last appeal is denied. Habeas corpus claims allege that a prisoner is being held unlawfully, so a restriction on them is necessarily a restriction on innocence claims.

This limit is especially frustrating when scientific evidence, most famously DNA evidence, is involved. Merritt described the exhausting process through which a prisoner tries to get the evidence tested: First, the prisoner and his lawyer need to know the evidence exists. Then the lawyer needs to pursue the evidence, rather than simply letting it drop as many inexperienced defense lawyers do. Then it needs to get tested, which may mean persuading the district attorney’s office to test it or going to court to get it examined. Then the testing needs to actually happen. Any one of these steps can eat up the prisoner’s one-year limit. And if evidence emerges after the year is up, too bad—no habeas corpus for you.

One way to ensure that defendants know their rights—thus ensuring that fewer innocent people are convicted—is by requiring and funding better defense counsel, especially in capital cases. Many groups, such as the Texas Defender Service, have spotlighted instances where lawyers were assigned to capital cases despite having little to no experience with them; sometimes their only “qualification” was that they had friends in high places or that they promised to finish a trial speedily to clear the judge’s docket. One lawyer, Richard Wardroup, even admitted that he was “impaired” due to his abuse of alcohol, cocaine, and methamphetamines during his conduct of a capital trial… with a man’s life at stake. Several witnesses testified that they saw him drunk, and one testified that he did cocaine with Wardroup on the way to the courthouse. His client, Joe Lee Guy, is on death row today. Groups like the Death Penalty Clinic try to find private, competent lawyers who will take death-row cases; many states also need tighter guidelines for what constitutes “competent” counsel.

Merritt also calls for a “wall of separation” between the police and crime labs. Laboratories should not be tied to either the defense or the prosecution. Lawyers for both sides should be informed of the entire testing process, not just the end results, and an independent reviewer should investigate allegations of lab misconduct.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed legislation that would address several of these problems, but it has yet to reach a vote in the full Senate. The Innocence Protection Act, sponsored in the Senate by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Gordon Smith (R-OR), and Susan Collins (R-ME), would raise the standards for competent counsel in death-penalty cases, suspend the one-year habeas corpus time limit in cases where there is a reasonable likelihood that prisoners could prove their innocence, and ensure that all capital defendants have access to DNA testing.

8. Education

This is one of the most basic ways to expand inmates’ horizons, keep them from getting trapped in prison life, give them hope for the future, and help them turn from being predators into productive citizens. And yet many prisons have sharply restricted their educational programs, viewing such programs as unnecessary frills. Ted Conover writes, “[S]tudies have shown again and again that nothing lowers recidivism rates like education. Refusing to consider post-secondary education as a front-line attack on crime is a terrible mistake. Prisons should start teaching again, and with officers justly resentful at inmates being offered for free what ordinary citizens have to pay for, it makes sense to me that officers should be allowed to take part in these same classes, off duty.

“Along these same lines, I think we should take the lead of European countries in trying to blur the sharp line that exists in our prisons between guards and other employees. The term ‘correction officer’ is imbued with the promise of reform and assistance. I think it would help to rehabilitate prisons themselves if officers taught some of the classes, did some of the counseling, were allowed to engage their own hearts and minds on the job, instead of just having to pretend they don’t have any.”

9. Track Performance and Enforce Accountability

When Rikers Island was boiling over with gangs and violence, Michael Jacobson and William Kerik teamed up to tame the prison. Together they cut inmate violence by 90 percent in just four years. Sick leave and overtime declined, two signs that officer morale was higher. Today Rikers is grappling with other problems—some officers have been accused of misuse of government property. Even while Kerik was still at Rikers, the old problems—guards covering up their assaults against inmates, escapes, poor medical care—remained; some improved, but others were merely holding steady. So Rikers is no miracle jail. But the startling decline in violence behind bars (by both inmates and guards) has persisted despite the scandal, and it’s still worth studying the jail to figure out how other institutions can live up to that standard.

Kerik and Jacobson succeeded in part by using the same accountability system that helped Mayor Rudolph Giuliani restore New York City and Mayor Martin O’Malley revive Baltimore. The system starts with a database called Compstat that tracks a horde of relevant statistics: How many disturbances took place this week, and where were they? How many guards were working overtime? How many were on sick leave? How many inmates attended religious services? What about using the library? How many times did officers use force or spray mace?

But information-gathering was only the beginning. The Rikers team used the data to offer public praise for managers who did well—and shame for those who did poorly. Every month, all the system’s wardens must meet to view and explain their stats. They have to answer tough questions about gangs in the jails and continuing problem areas. “Early on,” Kerik told City Journal, “I established a very simple rule: produce and work, and I’ll support you, you’ll have your job, you’ll have your career; do not produce, do not work, and you’ll have to go.” He docked pay from officers who couldn’t meet basic requirements like keeping an accurate inmate count, and he demoted chronic slackers.

In any large organization, it’s easy for people who work hard to fix the system to feel as if their efforts were worthless and unnoticed; it’s also easy for reformers to become isolated, chipping away at one small section of a problem without benefiting from the resources and knowledge hidden in other corners of the bureaucracy. Compstat was designed to overcome both obstacles, rewarding good performers and connecting them with one another so that they could exchange ideas. Compstat’s publicity also puts pressure on everyone—fix something or get out. It made the usual bureaucratic lassitude public, and therefore unacceptable.

Obviously, Compstat and accountability are only two of the many changes Kerik and Jacobson brought to New York’s jails—for example, they also used fancy equipment (like a chair that performs body-cavity searches via magnetic scan) and arrested prisoners who used violence in the jail. And the most important events in prisons can’t be measured. How do you compile a statistic tracking how many men reconciled with their children, or how many people gave their lives to God? But when the statistics can be grabbed, they should be made public, and there should be consequences when the numbers veer the wrong way.

Perhaps most importantly, jails and prisons that use Compstat-style databases should also compile information on recidivism. How many new prisoners have hit the jail before? Are many new prisoners doing a life sentence by piecemeal—five years here, six months there? Recidivism is the surest sign that a correctional institution is failing to correct.

10. Expand Innerchange

Innerchange Freedom Initiative is a program run by Prison Fellowship. Inmates, from check-kiters to killers, choose to live in a richly Christian atmosphere: Morning prayers at 6 A.M., days filled with Bible study, vocational training, classes on drug and alcohol abuse, and church services, all heavily salted with prayer. Innerchange units are separate from the rest of the prisons (no television, pornography, or swearing allowed), although Innerchange participants eat and spend recreation time with the other inmates. Later, after the initial six months of daily religious instruction, inmates also participate in community-service projects like Habitat for Humanity. The program is now offered in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and Texas. Participating in the program does not cut an inmate’s sentence; in one case, Innerchange even lengthened a sentence, when a Texas prisoner turned down parole so he could complete his 18 months in the program.

The prison units that house Innerchange have reported dramatic improvements in inmate behavior. The New York Times reported that the Iowa Innerchange unit had an “almost monastic atmosphere”; others have found the atmosphere convivial, with felons smiling and even hugging one another rather than trying to maintain a hard exterior.

All prisoners who have at least two years but less than five years left of their sentence are eligible for Innerchange. (Lifers are eligible in Iowa.) Even non-Christians can participate: More than one Muslim has completed the program.

Nonetheless, the program is emphatically Christian, and it has predictably drawn criticism because many see it as state endorsement of Christianity. Prison Fellowship’s Pat Nolan vigorously disagrees, imploring other faiths to set up similar programs and offering Prison Fellowship’s guidance and assistance to any groups that take up the challenge. Innerchange also tries to finesse church-state issues by providing a hefty chunk of funding itself, generally more than half the total amount it needs to run the program. It requests state funding only for things like housing, security, food, GED classes, and nonreligious drug counseling, which the state would have to pay for anyway.

There’s no real way of measuring whether Innerchange is more successful at preventing recidivism than comparable secular programs, because there are no comparable secular programs. So far, Innerchange inmates do seem to have significantly lower re-imprisonment rates than the general population. More importantly, one life-changing program should not be shuttered because there are so few alternatives to it; the obvious solution for those who worry that prisoners need non-Christian alternatives to Innerchange is to create those alternatives themselves. Even such de-Christianized programs would be far better than run-of-the-mill prison life.

11. Take Care of Ex-Prisoners

This is one of Innerchange’s great contributions: It continues after the prisoners are released. Mentors from the program greet prisoners on release; the program guarantees them a mentor, a church, and a home and tries to guarantee a job wherever possible.

Ex-offenders are in a terribly precarious stage. They are coming from an environment governed by clear rules—when to eat, when to line up—in which all the basics of life are provided for them. They enter the normal, outside environment, and suddenly they’re unsure where they’ll sleep that night, whom they’ll see in the morning, whether they’ll return to their old friends and ways or seek a new way of life.

Prisoners leaving Rikers Island used to be confronted with an especially vivid choice: They were dropped off by bus at two or three in the morning on a New York City street corner where the main players were drug dealers and prostitutes. Few family members were willing to trek out to the dangerous corner at that hour, so even those who had family waiting were left unwatched and unaided. The New York City Department of Corrections fixed that policy; now inmates are released between 5 and 6 A.M., and a nonprofit association called the Fortune Society has opened a center for ex-offenders next to the new drop-off site. The center offers coffee, someone to listen, and referrals to services like health care, education, job counseling, and treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.

Ex-offenders desperately need jobs; they need someone to give them a second chance. But they need that someone to have a hard head as well as a kind heart. Jennifer Wynn advises people who hire ex-felons to give them a firm structure, since they’re coming from a highly structured environment, and to “be on the lookout for absenteeism and depression.” She warns that an ex-convict is “dealing with a whole host of issues—stigmatization, fear, not being accepted”—and employers need to recognize that.

12. Fix Guard Training

In Newjack, Conover recalls the ways in which his training for Sing Sing sent mixed messages. The guards-in-training were told not to speak with the inmates who worked in the cafeteria. When the trainees reached Sing Sing, one woman asked whether they were supposed to talk with inmates at all. The lieutenant who took them on their first tour of the prison exclaimed, “Of course you have to talk to them! …You’d better talk to them. How else are you going to let them know what to do and hear what they need from you? Oh, yes! The job is all about talking to them. That’s really what it’s about.” Well, which is it? Are guards “keepers,” human zookeepers, or are they dealing with difficult people who are nonetheless “created equal”? It’s too easy for guards to slip into a cynical or desperate us-versus-them mentality, seeing themselves as trapped by prison life just like the criminals they guard. Their training should be geared toward helping guards avoid that mentality by maintaining a sense of what Conover calls “mission.”

Conover says that the problems he saw in Sing Sing did not stem from a shortage of guards or a lack of adequate pay. Instead, he argues, “the problems are more systemic, having to do with what officers believe their mission to be, and the lack of an imaginative structure for an inmate’s days.” He adds, “One of my main ideas is that officers be nudged towards a sense of themselves as actually working toward ‘correction’ of the inmates, that officers participate in activities like education or training that are not purely coercive and security-oriented.”

Conover also notes the opposite danger, that guards can start to think that their mission entails befriending prisoners. He worked with one guard who had a prisoner make his coffee every morning; Conover skeptically wondered what was being exchanged in return and whether this closeness compromised the guard’s ability to keep order and enforce necessary rules. False coziness is dangerous, but rigid distance is ineffective.

13. Support Guards and Their Families

Newjack includes a bleak joke told during the guards’ training: “What’s the first three things you get when you become a CO [corrections officer]?” “A car. A gun. A divorce.”

Guards and other prisoners are the people prisoners spend most of their time with. If guards are isolated and placed under intense stress, any number of bad consequences can result: Guards can become hopeless, frustrated, or violent. Guards can take their problems out on their spouses and children. Guards can come to resent education or other opportunities offered to prisoners, feeling as if the best way to get attention and help is to commit a crime.

The few law-enforcement spouse support groups, like POWCA (Peace Officers’ Wives Clubs Affiliated) and Handcuffed Hearts, focus on cops, not on guards. Marriage-mentoring groups, like Marriage Savers and Retrouvaille, might consider specialized branches focusing on high-risk groups—not just guards’ families but inmates’ families, military families under stress from frequent moves, and police officers’ families.

A smaller, but still significant, reform would be to avoid requiring officers to put in mandatory overtime. Mandatory overtime is often used to cut costs in prisons, but it’s so stressful for the guards that it can end up costing more money as guards passively rebel by taking sick leave and adopting a hopeless, resentful attitude. Guards, like everyone else, work poorly when they’re exhausted, stressed, and unhappy.

14. Take Steps Against Rape

Prison rape has slithered into everyday speech. Last May, 7 UP had to yank a television ad after prisoners’ rights groups protested that the commercial mocked raped prisoners. Indeed, prison rape has become a cliché—and that means few people take it seriously. Maybe they’d laugh a little less if they heard about Roderick Johnson.

Last April, Johnson filed suit against the head of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and several officials at the Texas prison where he spent 18 months of his sentence for bouncing a check while on parole for burglary. Johnson charges that he was raped and treated as a “slave” almost every day by prison gangs who threatened him with death and “rented” him to other prisoners for a few dollars per rape. Correctional officers dismissed all his attempts to seek help (Johnson says that some officers laughed at him and suggested he was enjoying the abuse) until he finally got in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, which brought his case to light.

Although there’s no comprehensive national study of prison rape rates, one study of four Midwestern states found that about 20 percent of male inmates reported that they had endured a “pressured or forced sex incident” behind bars. Women’s reported rates of sexual abuse varied widely.

Groups like Stop Prison Rape offer several proposals to make rape less likely. Most of them are simple, commonsense measures: When assigning inmates to cells, consider the likelihood of rape—don’t place a slight 18-year-old with a known sexual predator. Corrections officials must take rape allegations seriously, whether the charges are made against staff or against other inmates. Guards should be trained to recognize likely signs of rape and to interview possible victims sensitively. Staff who have sexually assaulted inmates, or who have covered up assaults, should be fired; victims won’t step forward and expose the crimes if they suspect no one will listen. Yet even these commonsense precautions are not being taken in many prisons.

Many states also house some violent juvenile offenders with adults. While the reasoning behind this policy is obvious—juvenile detention centers are rarely equipped to deal with teen carjackers or rapists—the result is that teens are housed with adult men. Sexual violence is one predictable outcome. The National Prison Project found that juveniles in adult jails and prisons “are eight times more likely to commit suicide, five times more likely to be sexually attacked and twice as likely to be assaulted by staff than juveniles confined in a juvenile facility. Adult institutions also lack the same type of programs and services that juvenile facilities provide to rehabilitate young offenders. Essentially, by incarcerating child offenders with adults we are giving up on the future of these children. The likelihood they will return to crime rises when they are initially imprisoned in an adult institution.”

15. Monitor Radical Islam

After the September 11 attacks, America woke up to the threat of violent jihad. Two of the post–September 11 terrorists—Jose Padilla and Richard Reid—first embraced radical Islam in prison. Prison is fertile ground for jihadist groups; prisoners are, as one might expect, often resentful toward the larger society and the law, and many embrace the purpose and structure Islam provides.

Observers worry that it’s impossible to preserve religious freedom in prisons while still making prison conversions to violent jihad less likely. But Prison Fellowship’s Pat Nolan suggests that it may be possible, and it’s certainly necessary in order to counter the concerted campaign being waged in prisons by radical groups. Charles E. Mandigo, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Seattle field office and an authority on terrorists, told the Baltimore Sun that although extreme Islamic groups are probably not trying to turn American prisoners into the next Mohammed Atta, they may well be getting information about potential targets and building a network of sympathizers. One imam who works in California’s prisons called the extremist entrance into prisons an “unholy alliance.”

Some moderate Muslims have complained that radical imams are preventing Muslims in prison from receiving moderate literature, claiming that the literature is not legitimately Islamic. Nolan explains, “Most corrections officials don’t understand Wahhabism or Salafism [another radical variant], and they’re so eager to have an imam [to serve the growing population of Muslims behind bars] that they accept these folks without even checking who trained them. It’s as if to fill a Protestant chaplain spot, they took somebody from David Koresh.”

Nolan notes, “We have not seen any preaching of violence,” even by imams from radical branches of Islam. But he claims that when prisoners are released—when they’re in that vulnerable, unanchored state—the imams have guided them to radical mosques where violent jihad is preached.

He says that prison officials need not attempt to sort out what Islam “really” means. “They can inquire whether the training this imam has received included the preaching of violence, or involvement with violent groups. If you had a Catholic priest who’d been running guns for the IRA,” he says, prison officials would never let that priest minister to inmates. So too should imams be screened, not in order to determine who is legitimately considered Islamic but simply to ensure that they don’t steer inmates to violent groups.

Time for Change

Some of these changes are much more difficult than others. Some seek to fix obvious ills of the body, whereas others hope to make a space through which prisoners will be more likely to allow God to heal the spirit. But all of them address the U.S. prison system’s inhabitants, not as a mass of undifferentiated statistics but as the individuals behind the numbers.


  • Eve Tushnet

    Eve Tushnet was born in 1978 and grew up in Washington, D.C. She was received into the Catholic Church at Yale University in 1998. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy. Her writing can be found on her blog and She writes a lot about being gay and Catholic. Her patron saint is Elizabeth of Hungary. She has worked full-time for the National Catholic Register and the Manhattan Institute (one year each), and part-time for the Institute on Marriage and Public Policy, the Bible Literacy Project, and the National Organization for Marriage. She has written for publications including Commonweal, the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Weekly Standard. Mostly she writes the art reviews for publications people don't read for the art reviews.

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