Thursday, November 13, 2014

Martin Horn: Ten Prison Reform Suggestions

Martin F Horn is the former Secretary of Corrections of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction. Below is an excerpt from his “Human Dignity Lecture” delivered at the Center for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

Ten Prison Reform Suggestions
  1. First, increase transparency. In 2008, the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates approved a resolution urging federal, state and local governments to establish independent oversight bodies to regularly monitor and report publicly on conditions in correctional facilities. It’s a good idea and every state should establish such bodies. Transparency recognizes that prisons and jails deprive our neighbors of their liberty in our name. As citizens, all of us must take an interest in the condition of our prisons and jails or nothing will change. We bear responsibility for them and we must remain vigilant daily about their operation. And bearing witness both to the best and the worst that occurs balances the representations in the media with the truth about imprisonment. It is our civic duty. If our prisons and jails are hellish, it is because we allow them to be. Additionally, we can further transparency if, as we close prisons we first close those furthest from the communities most prisoners come from; and if in the future we build we should do so in those communities so all can witness them and where advocates, clergy, attorneys and family members can easily visit the prisoners, and where the symbolic effect of imprisonment can be most effectively observed.
  2. Prisons and jails are the wrong places for our mentally ill. When the great experiment in deinstitutionalization was begun in the 1960’s it was supposed to be accompanied by the creation of a robust community mental health system. That never happened, and where it did it did not reach our neediest neighbors in poor communities of color. We overestimated the utility of psychotropic medications. Many of the men and women we see in prisons and jails are there because they are self-medicating, trying to ease their discomfort with alcohol, cocaine and heroin because they don’t like the adverse side effects of the drugs that have been prescribed for them. They turned to illegal drugs, got caught up in the war on drugs we have been fruitlessly waging these last 50 years and that is part of the reason we see so many mentally ill prisoners. We can change that by investing the resources and energy in finding ways to reach and help these people that does not criminalize their behavior.
  3. If prisons and jails are to be humane they must be safe places. Prisoners whose confinement is an experience in brutality are less likely to succeed when they are released. To do this we must resolve that they be drug free. Recently a close colleague who runs one of the biggest prison systems in the country told me drug testing at several of his prisons found over 20% of the prisoners using drugs. Drug use in prison is what fuels violence and corruption and is the economic engine from which prison gangs derive their power. Everything I know and have learned tells me that when we substantially reduce access to drugs in prisons and jails they become safer for the prisoners and for the staff. Yet, in too many prisons and jails today access to drugs is commonplace and accepted. That must end. There are ways to do it and every jurisdiction should accept that as a goal.
  4. Prisons should be places where prisoners learn that respect for the law and for others is how people in civil society behave. This means that the staff must respect the law and each other as well as their charges. We must build within our prisons a culture of integrity. We won’t teach prisoners to obey the law by breaking it and we don’t teach respect for the rules by violating them. How prison staff relates to each other and to the prisoners is the most powerful way to teach the prisoner how to be part of a civil community. The goal of prisons should be to release better citizens, not better criminals. 
  5. Today, one can’t expect to find work if one can’t read and write. There is no excuse for prisons not educating all prisoners to at least the high school level, and even beyond. We can teach people how to work, even if we can’t teach everyone to be a skilled machinist or computer technician. Work ennobles us, work gives us an identity. Whether one is painting the prison, peeling potatoes or fixing its plumbing one can learn to take pride in one’s work, to be responsible, to work with other and to be supervised. These are skills everyone needs on the outside. Prisons and jails can work on those things. Prisons are better at doing those things than they are at psychology.
  6. Prisons and jails should adopt performance management techniques, similar to the NYPD’s famous COMPSTAT to track progress in promoting the safety of prisoners, staff and the public and to hold managers accountable for results. If you don’t measure it you can’t manage it and the management of safety in prisons must be their highest priority. There are models for doing this and they should be replicated.
  7. End the demonization of prisoners. Embrace the notion that the people in prison are our neighbors, the children of our community and deserving of our concern. They are all returning home to the places they left and it is in our self-interest to see that they return with better prospects and better equipped to succeed than when they left. The National Academies report suggested that in addition to being parsimonious in our use of imprisonment, and limiting punishment to that which is appropriate to the offense, we should ask of our prison system that it recognize and promote the citizenship of prisoners and that it operate in a fashion that is consistent with social justice, and promote “society’s aspirations for a fair distribution of rights, resources, and opportunities. ”Behaving that way should obligate prison officials and our communities to adopt a standard of care that tells us to treat every prisoner as we would want our own son or daughter treated if they were imprisoned. It should cause our communities to accept their responsibility for the reintegration of these formerly incarcerated persons and not expect “the State” to take care of it.
  8. Prisons can’t change outcomes themselves, they need the support and the help of caring communities, faith communities, businesses and leaders willing to lend a hand by helping the man or woman released from prison to find a job, find a place to live. When the prisoner is released we cannot walk away from our responsibility to assist in his or her successful return. The state should invest in helping the released prisoner to find a place to live, to find a job, and to remain sober. If not, the failure is as much ours as the prisoner’s. We have to rethink the way in which prisoners return to their communities. Our present system of sentencing and parole does not support successful reentry to society. We should seriously consider fixed sentences, graduated release to halfway houses and more assistance to the released person rather than surveillance.
  9. Despite huge expenditures we have been miserly with the money needed to provide prison and jail officials the tools they need to do their job the way we wish it to be done. One of the great shames of our society today is the large number of prisoners in segregation, what some call solitary confinement. Unfortunately, in prison as in society at large, there are people who break the rules and a response is required. There are prisoners who are so dangerous that our obligation to the safety of the other prisoners requires them to be separated. But we need not and should not engage in the practice of solitary confinement. Simply put, it is wrong. Extreme social isolation is damaging and inconsistent with our desire to return people to their communities as productive, law abiding citizens. When prisoners must be segregated, the prison must take action to counteract the ill effects of extreme isolation. With sufficient resources, and with fewer mentally ill persons in prison and jail, administrators can find other, better ways to enforce the rules and keep everyone safe.
  10. Finally, we should repair the damage we have done to the communities most prisoners’ return to. We know that the unemployment rate for young black men is nearly 25%, twice that for young white men. That economic disadvantage is perpetuated by policies that deny education, housing and jobs to the formerly incarcerated and policies that count prisoners in the census where they are imprisoned, rather than in the communities they come from. It is made worse by disenfranchising them and allocating legislative seats to districts based on counting prisoners in the prisons rather than counting the prisoners as part of the district where they lived before going to prison. These policies dilute the power of poor communities of color while enhancing the power of prison communities. This is unfair and we should put an end to it.
To read the entire speech CLICK HERE

1 comment:

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