Guess Column: The American prison system remains broken by Edward Reid II

Source: Society's Child, prison overcrowding

The prison system in the United States remains broken. It’s been broken for long time – too long. Reforms seem barely able to scratch the surface. Too many lives on both sides of the equation have been shattered. We have had many chances to reform this system, yet we have been too silent in the face of this travesty.  Our county has ignored these men and women thinking of the prisoners as pariahs, broken individuals that cannot be fixed.

How is this way of thinking compatible with what the modern American claims to believe?  Most people think they have integrity and live a life of morals but how can that be possible when about 25% of the world’s total prison population is in the United Stated?  This is incomprehensible in my opinion when one looks at this objectively. Obviously, we are not as just as we think when such statistics like this represent our nation.

Part of the problem is that we are so detached from prison.  How many people do you know or have known in jail or prison during your life? It’s a place for someone other than me. A distant place even though I might drive by it on an interstate or country road. Maybe we have experience with a DUI or we know someone spending a small amount of time in jail but doing hard-time is not usually in our vocabulary unless we hear it in about in some song by a country singer.

Some reforms have been made over the years, but the prison system in the United States has been broken for such a length of time that we’ve become numb to it. We turn our eyes away from it. We have had many chances to reform this system, yet we have been too silent in the face of this travesty.  Our county has ignored these men and women thinking of the prisoners as pariahs, broken individuals that cannot be fixed.

How is this way of thinking compatible with what the modern American claims to believe?  Most people think they have integrity and live a life of morals but how can that be possible when about 25% of the world’s total prison population is in the United Stated?  This is incomprehensible in my opinion when one looks at this objectively. Obviously, we are not as just as we think when such statistics like this represent our nation.

Congressional and presidential attempts at reform get stalled for one reason or another.  Conditions still remain somewhere between sub-par to egregious.  Summer can be stifling, and the prisoners freeze in the winter.  Prisoners are often treated like animals, abused, and neglected.  Another notorious practice we still implement in the US is solitary confinement, considered torture throughout most of the world.

A recent proposal, by Neil Barsky enlightens to an idea called “Let us in”.  The title alludes to what this action is about which is letting the public inside the prisons to understanding the situation.  The best way to comprehend something that is going on is by being a witness.

A few reformers have asked whether we need prisons? Follow the money has been key to understanding their existence.

What we are missing in this country is human interaction.  As mentioned, we are so far away from prison life, that it is not even a thought in our mind.  If we are intentional in our thinking and our actions, change may take place.

This new proposal taking place is by the founder of the Marshall project, Neil Barsky, also a journalist covering non-profit prison reform issues.  This innovative program is not just “prison tourism but introducing the public to the humanity of prisoners.

The public can look the prisoners in the eye, shake their hands, get to know them, become friends with them even.  Individuals can really make a difference with this part of the population.  Here they can use their skills to instruct prisoners that are just wanting to be taught.  After all 90 percent will be returning to our population.  What are we waiting for?

Prisoners languish with little opportunity; recent college graduate could receive stipends to instruct in history and math.  Those looking for fulfillment after retirement would find it teaching literature students could receive credit for prison work. And people released from prison should be invited back to tell the men and women they left behind about life on the outside.

There have been examples of success in other areas in prison such as theatrical performances funded by Rehabilitation Through the Arts.  Some colleges also provide higher education and that is an excellent way to provide encouragement for inmates and also ensure possibilities of success after release.

San Quentin is inspiring in densely populated and liberal Marin County offering everything from yoga to computer training to psychotherapy classes, yet many prisons fall short especially in remote locales.

“Let Us In” cannot substitute the complex and difficult prison reforms that need radical change, but if executed properly it could make a drastic change on the public and the prisoners.

Both the public and the prisoners are individuals and too often in our society labels are used and we make blanket assessments unfairly leading to unjust assumptions.  Perhaps one meeting another and working together could effect a change in behavior and approach to our neighnors.