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Snapshot of A Solution

May 10, 2012

Snapshot of A Solution

 By Davin Douma

What if I could show you a way to reduce the costs of incarceration by half?  What if I could show you a way to get prisoners to change the way they view themselves and the world they live in?  What if I could show you a way to reduce the growth of criminal activity in the one place (prison) it seems to flourish the most?  What if you could get prisoners to be responsible citizens?  What if we could change the whole dynamic of incarceration in this country?  Would it be worth your time to listen?

Do you know why rehabilitation programs in prison don’t work?  It’s simple really.  The amount of time and energy expended in a rehabilitation program is miniscule compared to the negative influence of the prison environment.  Please let me explain that statement.  Let us say a prisoner, for whatever reason, signs up to take a prison program like Thinking For A Change.  The program is basically sound and provides good information and advice to prisoners.  The man who takes the course spends about two hours a week for six months in the course.  That means he gets a positive influence from the program for a total of fifty-two hours.

Fifty-two hours of good influence looks good in a vacuum, but prison programs don’t operate in vacuums, they operate in prisons.  In the same six month time period the prisoner takes the program, he has to face the reality of the world he lives in.  The threat of being killed, or assaulted, or robbed, or raped, or abused by a guard.  He lives in a world of stress and drugs and gangs.  In the same six month time frame he receives 2,860 hours of negative influence.  In other words, for every hour of positive influence he gets from a program, he gets fifty-five hours of negative influence.  The program simply can not compete with the environment.

The solution to changing the high cost of incarceration and reducing the number of victims and making rehabilitation more effective is the same for each.  You have to change the classical model that has proven to be a failure for the past two-hundred and twenty years.  It isn’t 1790 anymore.  Nor is it 1890.  So why are we still building and operating prisons the same way?  Haven’t we learned anything in the past two centuries?  Are we so entrenched in the way things are that we blind ourselves to the ladder leading out of the hole we are in?

In 1790, and in 1890, and in 1990, and now in 2010 we are still building prisons the same way.  Steel and concrete cages.  The physical structure of a prison may not sound very important, but it is actually the cause of most of our problems.  Early prisons, like the Walnut Street Jail, were built like fortresses so that criminals could be kept inside.  Those were the most effective security measures of the time.  The walls were stone and brick and the doors were steel and bars.  In essence, we built cages for humans like we would for exotic animals in zoos.  And as time passed and populations grew we just shoved more and more men into the same small spaces.

The prisons built in 1890 and 1990 are remarkably similar to the ones in 1790.  They generate the same kinds of feelings in both prisoners and guards.  They generate the same high costs.  They generate the same victims.  They generate the same violent criminals.  When our prisons failed, instead of looking at what we had built, we looked at what we were producing.  We thought that since men and women coming out of prisons were worse people, they obviously needed to stay in longer to fix them.  We went from giving out five year sentences for robbery to fifty year sentences.  We went from giving out six months in jail for a DUI to fifteen years.  We went from sending pot-head kids to group homes to incarcerating them in adult prisons for life.  Each time the system failed us, we punished the criminals even more.  It is similar to the idea that if you just hit your kid harder he will stop misbehaving.  That doesn’t work either.  It actually makes the kid worse.

 Copyright  2010. Davin Douma

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